Traveling into space is not a healthy endeavor; the list of medical risks associated with space travel is extensive and alarming. Muscle atrophy, cancer, and brain damage are just a few of the dangers that astronauts face during extended spaceflights. For enthusiasts of the idea of colonizing other planets, a new significant issue arises: prolonged spaceflights could lead to persistent erectile dysfunction in astronauts, as reported in a recent study.
Many medical issues in space result from prolonged exposure to microgravity, affecting various bodily functions over time. Besides muscle loss and changes in the heart, microgravity can lead to brain damage, vision impairment, and increased red blood cell breakdown, among other effects. Rigorous training can mitigate many of these harmful effects, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station dedicate daily time to their orbital gym.
Houston, Another Problem
However, addressing the issue of high radiation exposure during longer spaceflights is considerably more challenging. Currently, radiation is a major medical obstacle preventing human travel on extensive space journeys, such as to Mars. Increased cancer risk, brain damage, and immune system alterations are among the risks faced by potential Mars travelers due to radiation. Researchers now describe another unpleasant side effect for male space pioneers in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB): radiation and, to a lesser extent, microgravity during long spaceflights are likely to cause persistent erection problems.
While on our home planet, thanks to the Earth’s magnetic field and dense atmosphere, only a fraction of high-energy cosmic radiation reaches us, astronauts are much more exposed to ionizing particles. Although visitors to the ISS, which orbits the Earth at a distance of about 400 kilometers, do receive higher radiation doses, the Earth’s magnetic field still shields them. On a journey to Mars, this protection disappears, and it’s challenging to shield against high-energy particles.
To investigate the impact on sexual health, researchers had to rely on rat data due to a lack of astronaut data outside the ISS. A team led by Justin La Favor from Florida State University simulated conditions in a NASA lab and studied how radiation and microgravity affected the sexual health of the animals. The analysis revealed that even low radiation exposure increased tissue oxidative stress and impaired blood supply and penile erectile tissues. The problem seems to be persistent, as erectile dysfunction persisted 13 months after the experiment.
Overall, the results suggest that the neurovascular function of erectile tissues could be permanently impaired after an extended spaceflight, according to the study authors. Given the growing interest in astronautical missions and concrete plans for moon visits in the coming years, this issue needs careful monitoring. “They called for the sexual health of astronauts to be closely monitored on their return from future deep space missions,” says La Favor. There are indications that space-induced erectile dysfunction could potentially be treated with the timely administration of specific antioxidants, but further research is urgently needed.
Source: FASEB Journal.