A lot of people are now suffering from the dreadful Alzheimer’s, which seems to incapacitate brain function to the point where memory gradually gets worse and those inflicted become dependent on the mercy of others.
Combating the disease is a major undertaking for the medical profession which has not so far made any headway in finding a cure.
However, it seems that the secrets of a squirrel’s hibernation could hold the key to preventing it.
Other devastating conditions, including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, could also be avoided or delayed thanks to a British breakthrough.
Scientists from the Medical Research Council in Leicester have shown how deep hibernation-like sleep ‘cools down the brain’ and protects it from degenerative diseases.
The discovery could lead to a drug that prevents a host of crippling illnesses. – and, if taken in middle age, it could keep the brain stay healthy for longer.
Alzheimer’s charities described the research as ‘exciting’ and said it could have ‘wide-reaching benefits’.
Giovanna Mallucci got the idea for her research after hearing what happens to a squirrel’s brain when it hibernates.
‘When the animal’s body temperature drops to conserve energy during its long winter slumber, connections between brain cells are broken. This stops messages being sent from cell to cell and helps put the brain into a deep sleep.’
When the squirrels come out of hibernation, cell-to-cell connections – or synapses – re-form and work so perfectly that the squirrel can remember exactly where it hid its stash of nuts.
Because broken synapses are a classic early feature of neurodegenerative diseases in people, Professor Mallucci decided to see if she could fix them.
She gave healthy mice a drug that cooled them down to the 16-18 degrees centigrade of hibernating squirrels and put them in a deep sleep. The synapses of the mouse broke up and re-formed when they warmed up again – and levels of a protein called ‘RBM3’ rose.
‘In contrast, mice in the very early stages of an Alzheimer’s-like illness were unable to reform their synapses when coming out of hibernation. And they did not make more RBM3. However, when these mice were given an injection that raised levels of RBM3, the brain connections reformed,’ according to the science journal Nature. ‘If RBM3 also keeps human synapses healthy, a drug that increases levels could keep Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases at bay.’
Professor Hugh Perry, a Medical Research Council neuroscientist, said: ‘We now need to find something to reproduce the effect of brain cooling. Just as anti-inflammatory drugs are preferable to cold baths in bringing down a high temperature, we need to find drugs which can induce the effects of hibernation.’
Dr Eric Karran, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: ‘This research is at an early stage and will need exploring further in humans before we know whether it could be developed into an effective treatment for diseases like Alzheimer’s. There is currently a desperate lack of effective treatment options for people with dementia. Research to uncover the key biological mechanisms keeping brain cells healthy is important, as it provides more avenues for investigation in the search for treatments that could make a real difference to people’s lives.’
In brief, the key to all this is brain cooling. During hibernation synapses – the connections between brain cells vital for the transmission of messages and processing information – are broken, letting the brain cool. When squirrels emerge from their deep sleep, the synapses reconnect perfectly – and the Medical Research Council Study showed that a protein called RB13 is vital to this.
It is hoped that a drug that raises levels of RB13 and keeps the synapses intact will also keep the brain healthy. This could mean delaying the onset of dementia – or even preventing it.
If such a drug could be produced then people will be thankful to the squirrels whose contribution will for evermore be in the annals that celebrate the interchanging of data between animals and humans which made all this possible.