Naked mole rats reveal rugged brains

Naked_Mole_Rat_Eating

They can
barely see, are impervious to pain, have almost no hair, and spend the bulk of
their lives eking out a hardscrabble underground existence. Yet naked mole rats
may hold the key to developing better treatments for strokes and drowning,
scientists have discovered.

Research
in the Dec. 9 issue of NeuroReport

outlines the amazing hardiness of the bucktoothed rodents’ brains, which can
withstand extreme oxygen deprivation for more than a half-hour, far longer than
other mammals. In humans, for example, lack of oxygen begins to cause permanent
brain damage within minutes.

This unique
property is part of suite of adaptations that help mole rats survive in their
harsh environment—in cramped networks of tunnels dug beneath the East African
soil. In such tight quarters, the air’s oxygen gets used up quickly and
concentrations of carbon dioxide skyrocket. Brain researchers have already
found that naked mole rats lack
a key chemical, substance P, needed to transmit pain signals
, for instance,
which is believed to allow them to ignore acidic buildup in their tissues that
would to us feel excruciating.

The new study
found that, in many ways, naked mole rat neurons resemble the brain cells of
fetuses; because the womb is a low-oxygen environment, such immature brain
cells show much greater resistance to oxygen deprivation than those seen in
adults. Finding out how naked mole rats retain this youthful ruggedness could help
doctors stave off the neuron death that often follows heart attacks, traumatic
accidents, or medical emergencies, the study authors say.

—Aalok Mehta

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