Naked Mole Rat Brains May Shed Light on Stroke Treatment

July 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Thomas Park, biologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, along with colleagues at UIC and the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio believe that naked mole rats demonstrate how the brain can adapt to oxygen deprivation. This may shed light on possible treatments for heart attack and stroke victims.

Park explains, “Normally, calcium in brain cells does wonderful things, including forming memories. But too much calcium makes things go haywire.” He goes on to explain that too much calcium in a cell is unhealthy and that brain cells deprived of oxygen are unable to regulate calcium entry. Heart attacks and strokes prevent oxygen from entering the brain, resulting in brain damage and sometimes death.

Naked mole rat brain cells are better able to regulate their intake of calcium. They are tolerant to oxygen deprivation (hypoxia), just as human newborns are, because their brain cells possess calcium conduits that close off during oxygen deprivation. This closure protects the cells from a calcium overload.

As the body ages the calcium channels naturally lose their ability to close off because oxygen deprivation is not a normal occurrence that the body must adapt to after birth. The body does not anticipate a heart attack. Because of the naked mole rat’s subterranean lifestyle, in which it often confronts situations of oxygen deprivation, it retains its tolerance for oxygen deprivation into adulthood.

Park and his colleagues already knew the rat’s brain was similar to that of newborns, but they wanted to know if they used the same strategy to prevent calcium entry. The researchers measured the entry of calcium into the brain of rats that had been kept in oxygen-poor conditions. Park thinks they may have found a new way for protecting the human adult brain from oxygen deprivation. They reported their findings online in February in PLoS One.

Park says, “Developing this target into a clinical application is our next goal. We need to find a way to rapidly up-regulate the infant-type of calcium channels. Adult humans actually have some of these channels already, but far fewer than infants.” He believes his studies on naked mole rats could reveal much more about evolutionary adaptation. For instance, the naked more rats live in conditions of high carbon dioxide and ammonia, which would make most animals ill. These remarkable rats can suppress both pain and even cancer. He advocates further studies of these creatures. “The more we study these creatures,” said Park, “the more we learn.”

Works Cited

“Naked Mole Rats Bear Lifesaving Clues”. (February 24, 2012). Neuroscience News. March 4, 2012.


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