Updated: Dec 7, 2020
What effects does radiation have on our development before we’re even born? What effect does it have on our health down the road as adults? And why might antioxidants have the potential to improve health outcomes for healthcare workers, those who work in nuclear power plants—and even astronauts?
We spoke with Dr. T.C. Tai from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine about these questions and more.
What are you trying to find out?
The goal of our research is to understand the biological effects of exposure to low-dose radiation during late pregnancy. We’re looking at how or if these low doses affect the development of the fetus as well as effects on newborns or later in life as adults.
And if we can figure out how something like radiation affects us before we’re even born, we can explore mitigation strategies—ways we can prevent the damage from happening, or at least reduce it.
What attracted you to this work in the first place?
We know that adult health begins in the womb. Conditions both inside the womb and external effects on the mother during pregnancy can “program” the fetus to develop diseases later in adult life.
Basically, health and disease in adulthood can be pre-determined in-utero.
What kind of diseases?
We’re looking at cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome (which raises your risk for health problems like diabetes, stroke, heart attacks), and mental health issues and behavioural disorders.
What has your research uncovered so far?
Even up to the fairly high dose of 300 mGy, we’ve found no significant effect on fetal health of mice after birth—no signs of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome.
We start with mice in their third trimester of pregnancy and expose them to different doses of radiation, from 5 to 1,000 mGy.
Once we reach the extreme 1,000 mGy dose, we have seen some affects on glucose uptake (how the body processes sugars) and unhealthy proteins in the mice’s livers.
In terms of behavioural changes, we didn’t see any changes in those mice up to 1,000 mGy dose, although at 1,000 mGy we saw some changes that were consistent with mental health issues like depression.
How can we reduce these effects of higher radiation levels?
We’re starting now with some experiments on whether giving the pregnant female mice antioxidants will help lessen—or even prevent—the damage to cells cause by the free radicals released by the body when it’s exposed to radiation.
These antioxidant supplements could be a preventative treatment for people who are exposed to higher-than-average radiation levels, like healthcare workers, those who work in nuclear plants, and even astronauts during space travel and exploration.
So, astronauts should be upping their blueberry and red wine intake before space travel?
It may seem like science fiction, but preventing cellular damage from radiation during space travel will be an important part of future human space missions.
Finally, what’s the most important thing we don’t talk about when we talk about radiation?
Radiation is present naturally in our environment. We know that radiation at high doses can be harmful and destructive, but radiation can also be beneficial for medical diagnoses, sterilization, and treatments.
Low doses of radiation—what we get every day from the sun, the earth, and the deepest reaches of space—are essential to our health, not to mention basically all of human agriculture. And radiation has many other applications in fields that are beneficial to human well being, such as energy, agriculture, mining, and space exploration.