What Should We Fear? I Forgot!


The gringa is more than happy to cheer on Obama’s goal of getting the U.S. space program to Mars within the next 15 years. I should still be young and vibrant enough to don a space helmet if the call to serve my country arises! In fact, considering the latest news on expected conditions for Mars destined astronauts, someone like me might be the astronaut of choice.

Whereas, before, the gringa always believed that epilepsy would probably be a big disqualifier for space travel, turns out a bit of brain damage is probably just par for the course for a Mars trip. Heck, then, maybe I’ve already been there and didn’t even know it! Could be those alien abduction conspiracy theorists have been right all along!

Doctors are still mystified about what causes epilepsy. Maybe all of us epileptics were abducted by space aliens, taken to Mars in an instant through a wormhole, had all kinds of crazy medical studies performed on us, then returned home in the blink of an eye. All that radical space/time continuum dazzle frazzled our brains!

Or… maybe us epileptics are all originally FROM Mars! Now wouldn’t that be something. The brain damage expected to be experienced in a flight from Earth to Mars may have the same effect in a reverse course from Mars to Earth. Maybe I was switched at birth with a real Earthling by Martians who took my doppleganger to Mars! Wouldn’t THAT be something!

So how does travel between Earth and Mars, regardless of which direction you’re headed, end up casing brain damage? Two words… cosmic rays. It’s a long journey from the Big Blue Marble to the Red Planet and then back again. The effects of being exposed to cosmic rays for about one year would be neurological impairments that would affect an astronaut’s judgment and cognitive abilities. In addition to the space brain effect, prolonged, long-term exposure to radiation is pretty much a guarantee that Mars bound astronauts are going to end up with some form of cancer and a weakened immune system that couldn’t even fend off a bout of sneezing.  But how do researchers know this, or suspect it, if no one has traveled between Mars and Earth (that we know of… the gringa is still musing the possibilities of her origins…)

Studies have been conducted at the Brookhaven Laboratory in New York. Leading the research is a team of scientists from the University of California Irvine. They used the particle accelerator at the laboratory to simulate the Earth-Mars travel condition scenario on rats. What happened is that the rats suffered serious neurological damage. They became dumber… unable to remember which meant unable to learn. Even worse, as far as the gringa’s concerned, they lost their natural ability of “fear extinction”.

“What is “fear extinction?” the dear reader asks. Well, the gringa’s gonna tell you. From the time we are babies all sorts of things happen to us that traumatize us with fear. The human brain is an amazing thing. It has a powerful survival instinct that triggers all sorts of protective measures and responses that are automatic. Sometimes we don’t have to try at all when it comes to saving ourselves. Our brain automatically performs an extinction of the fear reaction to certain stimuli.

You see, when something scary happens, like a mom or dad that jumps out and yells, “Boo!”, scaring the baby, the first time the baby probably cries like the dickens, scared to death. However, as mom and dad continue to do this the baby’s brain learns that nothing really bad happens even though the fear response is automatically triggered when startled. Eventually the baby no longer cries when someone jumps up and says, “Boo!” In fact, the baby may even learn how to laugh.

As we grow and have all sorts of life experiences, this happens all the time. That’s how we are able to actually enjoy fear, like watching scary movies or telling spooky tales at campouts or visiting haunted houses or pranking loved ones. But a trip to Mars destroys this capability.

When the gringa puts together the entire picture of an astronaut’s mental condition upon arriving to Mars, she’s not so sure they will survive. Think about it. A Mars team would be:

  • Physically ill (early stage cancer with little to none immunity)
  • Critical information would be forgotten related to their survival (impaired memory may result in no longer remembering how to operate complex technologies their lives depend on)
  • Even if they are in contact with Mission Control on Earth who could talk them through an important process, they are not able to understand instructions (cognitive abilities impaired)
  • In a strange place so far from Earth, unable to master the necessary skills to survive, the realization of their doom would trigger immense fear that would be uncontrollable (the fear extinction response is destroyed)

If anyone has read “Lord of the Flies” it is no big stretch, then, to surmise what might result from this accumulation of trouble… a mission crew that becomes unreasonably paranoid, dangerous and turns on one another. Until the world’s space programs come up with a way to effectively shield Mars bound astronauts from cosmic rays, the gringa has lost all interest in a manned Mars mission. Although my personal level of brain damage can be frustrating, at least I can enjoy a good helter-skelter horror flick without turning on the caveman with a butcher knife.

Sources:

newatlas.com

news.uci.edu

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Image Credit:  signalvnoise.com

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gringaofthebarrio

A barrio gringa with a dream of cosmic proportions: writing to satiate my insatiable curiosity, worldwide literacy beginning with our youth, and to be the first barrio gringa to explore outer space!

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