Squirrel biology may hold the key to potential treatments for stroke patients. Scientists from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) found that hibernating squirrels can keep their brains alive without oxygen.
These little rodents wake up from their hibernation, seemingly without any damage to their brains, despite the lack of blood flow, oxygen, and essential nutrients.
Researchers have discovered that squirrels who hibernate undergo a cellular process called SUMOylation. This protective process essentially tricks the squirrel’s brain into thinking it has enough nutrients to survive.
Most strokes are caused by a blood clot that prevents oxygenated blood from reaching the brain. Once an individual suffered a stroke, doctors have to remove the blood clot as quickly as possible in order to prevent any brain cells from dying of lack of oxygen. It is estimated that one hundred thousand people suffer from strokes in the UK every year, out of which two-thirds leave the hospital with some sort of brain damage or disability.
By using the squirrel’s biology as a point of reference, scientists hope to mimic the process in humans. This would allow doctors more time to remove blood clots in stroke victims.
“If we could only turn on the process hibernators appear to use to protect their brains, we could help protect the brain during a stroke and ultimately help people recover,” states Joshua Bernstock, the study’s author.
Researchers from the NINDS believe they can boost the SUMOylation process by using enzyme ebselen injections. Tests conducted on mice showed positive results.
Dr. Francesca Bosetti, program director at NINDS also thinks a further study into the hibernation process of squirrels can lead to new approaches for preserving brain cells after a stroke.
“ I always want outcomes that can lend themselves to new therapeutics for people who are in need” Bosetti said.
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