They're buck toothed, furless and ugly but naked mole rats could just hold life saving clues towards the development of new treatments to protect brain cells from damage following heart attacks or strokes.
A new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are assessing the hairless subterranean creatures to work out how they are able to keep their brains alive, even when living beneath ground in oxygen-deprived environments.
The key may lie in how brain cells regulate their intake of calcium. Naked mole-rats are very tolerant to oxygen deprivation, -- as are human newborns, whose brain cells 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.
Head researcher Thomas Park speaking to CBS Chicago said, “What we found is that the mole rates retain those baby characteristics throughout their very long life, and so now we think we have a new target to try to help people that find themselves in an oxygen-deprived situation.”
"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 calcium channels. 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. (Read more)