Talk about a problem of cosmic, uh, proportions. A recent rat study conducted by NASA-funded researchers found that deep space travel might inflict long-lasting erectile dysfunction symptoms on male astronauts — a problem that may even persist after they return to Earth.
According to the research, which was published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's FASEB Journal, the galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) that astronauts would be exposed to during long-term space travel could cause damage to spacefarers' erectile tissues, leading to potentially decades-long genital woes.
The discovery "exposes a new health risk to consider with deep space exploration," as the researchers write in the study.
To test how GCR and microgravity might impact erectile tissues, the researchers subjected 86 male rats to four weeks of experiments at NASA's Space Radiation Laboratory in New York. In the experiments, rats were first anesthetized, and then held in harnesses at 30-degree angles while exposed to various levels of radiation designed to mimic that of GCR.
The verdict? Unfortunately, not good news for the rats. The researchers found that even very low exposure levels caused oxidative stress, which in turn did damage to the artery allowing blood flow to the penis and erectile tissue. And even at these low levels, the effects of the radiation were found to persist more than a year later. Weightlessness was also found to contribute to the rats' health issues, albeit to a lesser degree.
But Justin La Favor, a neurovascular dysfunction expert at Florida State University and the study's senior author, told Newsweek that the finding was "not terribly surprising," given some research that's already out there.
"Prior research has demonstrated that GCR can cause damage to the endothelium and the nervous system," La Favor continued, "both of which are critical for proper erectile function."
If there's any bright spot, the study authors noted that targeted treatments helped to improve the affected rats' penile problem.
"While the negative impacts of galactic cosmic radiation were long-lasting," La Favor noted in a Wednesday report, according to The Guardian, "functional improvements induced by acutely targeting the redox and nitric oxide pathways in the tissues suggest that the erectile dysfunction may be treatable."
Of course, as the eternal caveat for studies like this always goes: we're talking about rats, not people. The findings certainly warrant further study — but in the meantime, any male ratstronauts considering having families should probably think twice before stowing away on the upcoming Artemis missions.
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