- A stroke occurs when a clot in an artery blocks blood flow and oxygen to the brain.
- Damage to brain tissue can result in a range of complications, disabilities, or even death.
- Naked mole rats withstand long periods of time in low-oxygen environments, an adaptation to survive in burrows.
- Scientists are studying the naked mole rat’s ability to tolerate lack of oxygen to decrease brain damage after a stroke
Joann is an active and independent 64-year-old who experienced an odd numbness in her left hand, but thought nothing of it. But the numbness didn’t go away – rather it spread and her face began to droop on one side. As she tried to speak, all that came out were unintelligible noises. Joann was having a stroke, which strikes someone in the United States every 40 seconds (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014).
Stroke is the 4th leading cause of death and a primary cause of adult disability in the United States (“What is Stroke?,” 2014). New research on the naked mole rat might offer hope for the millions of people hospitalized annually for stroke.
What is a stroke?
A stroke results from a clot in an artery leading to the brain. Severely decreased blood flow and oxygen deprivation can cause permanent damage to brain tissue. Depending on which area of the brain is affected, different disabilities or degrees of paralysis may result. Joann’s stroke affected her ability to use her tongue and throat muscles, making it hard for her to eat and talk. Even after months of intensive physical and occupational therapy, the spunky 67-year-old did not regain complete control of her facial and throat muscles. Heartbroken that she would have to relinquish her independence, she reluctantly moved to an assisted living facility.
Help from hairless rodent
The naked mole rat, a blind, nearly hairless rodent about the size of a mouse that lives underground, might provide the secret to reducing brain damage caused during a stroke. Larson and Park noted this rat’s extreme tolerance to low-oxygen conditions in 2009 (Larson & Park, 2009). They found that neurons in the naked mole rat keep functioning in hypoxia, or the lack of oxygen, for over 30 minutes at a time – up to six times longer than mouse neurons can. Interestingly, this tolerance is a characteristic shared by all mammal fetuses and is retained by human children for the first few years of life.
The researchers hypothesized that naked mole rat neurons go through an extended period of slow or stopped development as an adaptation to living in burrows, a chronically low-oxygen environment. A later study seems to support this hypothesis (Peterson et al., 2012).
Thanks to these wrinkly, buck-toothed rodents, scientists know a lot more about how neurons survive in low-oxygen conditions. Armed with this new knowledge, they are working to find a way to prevent or minimize the impact of stroke, not only on seniors but also the 34% of people hospitalized for stroke who are under the age of 65 (“Stroke Facts,” 2015).
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