Exposure to low (∼20 cGy) doses of high-energy charged (HZE) particles, such as 1 GeV/n 56Fe, results in impaired hippocampal-dependent learning and memory (e.g., novel object recognition and spatial memory) in rodents. While these findings raise the possibility that astronauts on deep-space missions may develop cognitive deficits, not all rats develop HZE-induced cognitive impairments, even after exposure to high (200 cGy) HZE doses. The reasons for this differential sensitivity in some animals that develop HZE-induced cognitive failure remain speculative. We employed a robust quantitative mass spectrometry-based workflow, which links early-stage discovery to next-stage quantitative verification, to identify differentially active proteins/pathways in rats that developed spatial memory impairment at three months after exposure to 20 cGy of 1 GeV/n 56Fe (20/impaired), and in those rats that managed to maintain normal cognitive performance (20/functional). Quantitative data were obtained on 665–828 hippocampal proteins in the various cohorts of rats studied, of which 580 were expressed in all groups. A total of 107 proteins were upregulated in the irradiated rats irrespective of their spatial memory performance status, which included proteins involved in oxidative damage response, calcium transport and signaling. Thirty percent (37/107) of these “radiation biomarkers” formed a functional interactome of the proteasome and the COP9 signalosome. These data suggest that there is persistent oxidative stress, ongoing autophagy and altered synaptic plasticity in the irradiated hippocampus, irrespective of the spatial memory performance status, suggesting that the ultimate phenotype may be determined by how well the hippocampal neurons compensate to the ongoing oxidative stress and associated side effects. There were 67 proteins with expression that correlated with impaired spatial memory performance. Several of the “impaired biomarkers” have been implicated in poor spatial memory performance, neurodegeneration, neuronal loss or neuronal susceptibility to apoptosis, or neuronal synaptic or structural plasticity. Therefore, in addition to the baseline oxidative stress and altered adenosine metabolism observed in all irradiated rats, the 20/impaired rats expressed proteins that led to poor spatial memory performance, enhanced neuronal loss and apoptosis, changes in synaptic plasticity and dendritic remodeling. A total of 46 proteins, which were differentially upregulated in the sham-irradiated and 20/functional rat cohorts, can thus be considered as markers of good spatial memory, while another 95 proteins are associated with the maintenance of good spatial memory in the 20/functional rats. The loss or downregulation of these “good spatial memory” proteins would most likely exacerbate the situation in the 20/impaired rats, having a major impact on their neurocognitive status, given that many of those proteins play an important role in neuronal homeostasis and function. Our large-scale comprehensive proteomic analysis has provided some insight into the processes that are altered after exposure, and the collective data suggests that there are multiple problems with the functionality of the neurons and astrocytes in the irradiated hippocampi, which appear to be further exacerbated in the rats that have impaired spatial memory performance or partially compensated for in the rats with good spatial memory.
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Vol. 187 • No. 3