New research has located the chemical responsible for brain regeneration in hibernating animals.
What do a hibernating bear and an elderly woman with dementia have in common? They both lose connections between brain cells, also known as synapses. The difference is the bear regenerates synapses when it awakens in the spring, and scientists now believe harnessing that ability could someday lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
When animals such as bears, mice and hedgehogs hibernate, they destroy up to 30 percent of their brain connections in order to preserve energy. But when the hibernating animals wake up, those lost brain connections are repaired, resulting in no loss of cognitive function. A team of U.K. researchers have discovered “cold-shock chemicals” present in the animals that are used to prevent brain-cell death.
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, however, brain connections are lost, leading to the death of brain cells.
In an experiment conducted with mice, scientists found that when the body temperatures of young mice were cooled from 37 degrees Celsius to just about 17 degrees Celsius, synapses were lost but quickly regained when the mice were warmed up.
When old mice were subjected to the same cooling, however, they were unable to re-establish lost brain connections. The study found levels of the “cold-shock” chemical RBM3 soared when young mice were chilled, but did not rise in old mice. Scientists believe RBM3 enabled the young mice to reform brain connections.
If researchers’ hypothesis is correct, artificially boosting RBM3 levels in Alzheimer’s patients could prevent brain-cell death. British toxicology Professor Giovanna Mallucci told the BBC such a treatment could even help patients restore lost memories.
A lot of memory decline is correlated with synapse loss, which is the early stage of dementia, so you might get back some of the synapses you’ve lost.
Of course, artificially cooling a person isn’t an ideal treatment for progressive conditions such as Alzheimer’s, but researchers hope the findings will lead to the development of drugs that will also boost RBM3 levels.
“Connections between brain cells… are lost early on in several neurodegenerative conditions, and this exciting study has shown for the first time that switching on a cold-shock protein called RBM3 can prevent those losses,” the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dr. Doug Brown said.