NASA scientists have uncovered a potential health risk for male astronauts returning from deep space missions: erectile dysfunction. Galactic cosmic rays, along with the effects of microgravity, were found to impair erectile tissue function, with consequences that could last for decades.
This revelation adds to the myriad challenges faced by astronauts, including homesickness, muscle atrophy, bone density loss, elevated cancer risk, and the isolation of space. The study emphasises the importance of monitoring astronauts' sexual health on their return from deep space missions. The researchers propose that certain antioxidants might counteract the adverse effects by blocking harmful biological processes.
Dr. Justin La Favor, an expert in neurovascular dysfunction at Florida State University and a senior author on the study, noted, "While the negative impacts of galactic cosmic radiation were long-lasting, functional improvements induced by acutely targeting the redox and nitric oxide pathways in the tissues suggest that erectile dysfunction may be treatable."
This warning gains significance as space agencies like NASA gear up for extended missions to the moon and ambitious voyages to Mars. The Artemis program aims to send astronauts to the moon as early as next year, with Mars missions tentatively planned for 2040.
While previous studies have explored the effects of weightlessness and cosmic radiation on human physiology, the impact on erectile function has been largely unexplored. Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere shield us from cosmic radiation, but this protection is absent during space travel.
The researchers turned to rats for their experiments, simulating galactic cosmic rays' impact at NASA's Space Radiation Laboratory. Even low exposure to cosmic rays increased oxidative stress in the rats, impairing the artery that supplies blood to the penis and erectile tissue. Weightlessness also had an impact, though less pronounced.
The study suggests that the neurovascular function of erectile tissues may be impaired for an extended period following astronauts' return from deep space exploration. However, there's a silver lining – treatment with specific antioxidants showed promise in improving tissue function after exposure to cosmic rays, offering hope for future space farers.
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