Naked mole-rats bear lifesaving clues

February 23, 2012

Could blind, buck-toothed, finger-sized naked mole-rats harbor in their brain cells a survival secret that might lead to better heart attack or stroke treatments?

University of Illinois at Chicago biologist Thomas Park and colleagues at UIC and the University of Texas Heath Science Center at San Antonio think the subterranean lifestyle of the pasty-looking rodents may indeed hold clues to keeping brain cells alive and functioning when oxygen is scarce. The key may lie in how brain cells regulate their intake of calcium.

"Normally, calcium in brain cells does wonderful things, including forming memories," says Park, who is professor of biological sciences at UIC. "But too much calcium makes things go haywire."

Brain cells starved of oxygen can't regulate calcium entry, and too much calcium in the cell is lethal. When a or stroke prevents oxygenated blood from reaching the brain, or death results.

Naked mole-rats, however, are very tolerant to , or hypoxia -- as are human newborns, whose have calcium channels that close during oxygen deprivation, protecting the cells from calcium overdose. With age, these calcium channels no longer close, which normally isn't a problem -- except during a heart attack.

Naked mole-rats retain a tolerance for oxygen deprivation into adulthood. Park and his colleagues measured calcium entry in that had been kept under oxygen-poor conditions, reporting their findings online Feb. 21 in .

"We knew the adults of this unusual mammal had brains that, like infant humans, were very tolerant to oxygen deprivation," he said. "We wanted to know if the adult naked mole-rats used the same strategy as babies to prevent calcium entry. This is exactly what we found."

Park thinks this strategy is an by mole-rats, which live in the hundreds underground in tight, oxygen-deprived conditions.

"Imagine 200 mice living in a shoe box buried four feet under the ground -- things are going to get bad fast," he said.

The researchers think they have identified a novel mechanism for protecting the adult brain in times of oxygen deprivation.

"Developing this target into a clinical application is our next goal," he said. "We need to find a way to rapidly up-regulate the infant-type of . Adult humans actually have some of these channels already, but far fewer than infants."

Park, who for years has studied naked mole-rats and their unusual adaptations, thinks the latest findings "are just the tip of the iceberg" of what we can learn from the rodents. Their homes are not only oxygen-poor, but rich in carbon dioxide and ammonia -- conditions that would make most animals ill. Yet mole-rats have evolved to suppress pain and even cancer.

"The more we study these creatures," said Park, "the more we learn."

Explore further: Scientists identify genes that may signal long life in naked mole-rats

Related Stories

Scientists identify genes that may signal long life in naked mole-rats

November 3, 2011
Scientists at the University of Liverpool have identified high levels of a number of genes in the naked mole-rat that may suggest why they live longer than other rodents and demonstrate resistance to age-related diseases.

Recommended for you

Scientists find key to regenerating blood vessels

November 23, 2017
A new study led by researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) identifies a signaling pathway that is essential for angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels from pre-existing vessels. The ...

Researchers find infectious prions in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease patient skin

November 22, 2017
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)—the human equivalent of mad cow disease—is caused by rogue, misfolded protein aggregates termed prions, which are infectious and cause fatal damages in the patient's brain. CJD patients ...

Surprising roles for muscle in tissue regeneration, study finds

November 22, 2017
A team of researchers at Whitehead has illuminated an important role for different subtypes of muscle cells in orchestrating the process of tissue regeneration. In a paper published in the November 22 issue of Nature, they ...

Study reveals new mechanisms of cell death in neurodegenerative disorders

November 22, 2017
Researchers at King's College London have discovered new mechanisms of cell death, which may be involved in debilitating neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

How rogue immune cells cross the blood-brain barrier to cause multiple sclerosis

November 21, 2017
Drug designers working on therapeutics against multiple sclerosis should focus on blocking two distinct ways rogue immune cells attack healthy neurons, according to a new study in the journal Cell Reports.

New simple test could help cystic fibrosis patients find best treatment

November 21, 2017
Several cutting-edge treatments have become available in recent years to correct the debilitating chronic lung congestion associated with cystic fibrosis. While the new drugs are life-changing for some patients, they do not ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.