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Strawberries may boost astronaut performance

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Snacking on strawberries may help astronauts to perform better on long space missions. A daily dose of the frozen fruit boosts brain function in rats exposed to a lab version of cosmic radiation, heard this week's Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"Dietary supplements such as this may help protect future astronauts from the dangerous physical and mental effects of extended radiation exposure," says Bernard Rabin of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who studied the rodents. Frozen strawberries have been on the space menu since the early shuttle flights of the 1980s.

Those who travel beyond Earth's protective magnetic field are bombarded by cosmic rays - energetic particles left over from the Big Bang. Rats exposed to a lab equivalent are less motivated and able to learn. As missions lengthen, astronauts may face similar problems.

Rabin's team treated rats to an 8-week diet of 2% frozen strawberry, 98% standard lab chow, then exposed them to a minute's worth of artificially produced cosmic rays. In a motivation test a year on, these rodents beat animals that had been fed a fruit-free diet. They worked twice as hard to press a lever for a food reward.

The study suggests that a strawberry-supplemented diet may help astronauts work more effectively in space, claims Rubin. To match the rat dosage, explorers would need to eat a pint of strawberries per day.

The reason for the fruit's seemingly protective effect is not known. Antioxidant molecules in blueberries can slow age-related memory decline in rats, says Edward Spangler from the National Institute of Aging, Maryland, who studies the health benefits of fruit. Similar chemicals may help strawberries to shield brain cells from harmful cosmic rays, he speculates.

If active ingredients can be identified, they could be synthesized and given to astronauts in tablet form.

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