Bears and mice have had it right all along. According to scientists, the benefits of hibernation extend beyond just avoiding a long wintery spell. They also help the body heal itself, even reversing certain serious diseases.
Scientists have been studying how neurodegenerative diseases are halted by the regenerative powers of hibernation. Upon entering hibernation, around 20-30% of brain connections, or synapses, are destroyed as the body preserves itself for winter. Miraculously, those connections are reformed in spring while waking up, with no loss in memory.
A UK team has discovered “cold-shock chemicals” that trigger regenerative processes. By using these, the scientists were successful in preventing brain cells from dying in animals. They also hope that this technology could one day be used to restore lost memories.
In their experiments, mice with Alzheimer’s disease were cooled until their body temperatures dropped to 16-18C. Synapses were lost during the chill, and then were regained upon warming. The scientists observed that the “cold-shock chemical,” called RBM3, soared in mice when they were chilled, and suggest that this chemical was key to the formation of new connections. In further tests, the team discovered that Alzheimer’s could be prevented by artificially boosting RBM3.
Unfortunately, the scientists also observed that the recovery of brain connections only worked in young mice afflicted with the disease. When the elderly mice were chilled, they were unable to regain their previously lost connections. Regardless, this type of discovery will hopefully lead to drug development that could be utilized to halt or prevent neurodegeneration in young people with such diseases.
Dr. Doug Brown, the director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s society had this to say about the discovery: “We know that cooling body temperature can protect the brain from some forms of damage and it’s interesting to see this protective mechanism now also being studied in neurodegenerative disease.”
Brown also stated, “While we don’t think body cooling is a feasible treatment for long-term, progressive conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, this research opens up the possibility of finding drugs that can have the same effect. We are very much looking forward to seeing this research taken forward to the next stage.”
This study comes from the same laboratory that was the first to prevent the death of brain tissue in a neurodegenerative disease.
Read more on the study here.