To assess the possible neurobehavioral performance risks to astronauts from living in a space radiation environment during long-duration exploration missions, the effects of head-only proton irradiation (150 MeV/n) at low levels (25–50 cGy, approximating an astronaut's exposure during a 2-year planetary mission) were examined in adult male Long-Evans rats performing an analog of the human psychomotor vigilance test (PVT). The rodent version of PVT or rPVT tracks performance variables analogous to the human PVT, including selective attention/inattention, inhibitory control (“impulsivity”) and psychomotor speed. Exposure to head-only proton radiation (25, 50, 100 or 200 cGy) disrupted rPVT performance (i.e., decreased accuracy, increased premature responding, elevated lapses in attention and slowed reaction times) over the 250 day testing period. However, the performance decrements only occurred in a subgroup of animals at each exposure level, that is, the severity of the rPVT performance deficit was unrelated to proton exposure level. Analysis of brain tissue from irradiated and control rats indicated that only rats with rPVT performance deficits displayed changes in the levels of the dopamine transporter and, to a lesser extent, the D2 receptor. Additional animals trained to perform a line discrimination task measuring basic and reversal learning showed no behavioral effects over the same exposure levels, suggesting a specificity of the proton exposure effects to attentional deficits and supporting the rPVT as a sensitive neurobehavioral assay.
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Vol. 181 • No. 3