A few weeks ago we wrote about the naked mole rat, a repugnant little subterranean creature possessing a unique immunity to cancer. Now it turns out that the hardy little rodents are resistant to strokes as well, a finding that may help researchers figure out better treatments for brain injuries arising from heart attacks and strokes.
The cancer immunity in mole rats is genetic, but their seeming immunity to brain damage from strokes is less nature, more nurture. Naked mole rats live about six feet below the ground in hive-like colonies of up to 300, tight conditions for any species (note the picture above). Those living conditions spawn serious air quality problems. The air that mole rats breathe is so horribly foul and so rich in carbon dioxide that it would be fatal — or at the very least cause irreversible brain damage — to any other mammal.
The naked mole rat, however, has adapted a tolerance for systemic hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in both the pulmonary and nervous systems. Mole rat neurons maintain function more than six times longer than comparable mouse neurons can after oxygen deprivation sets in.
Researchers believe this is primarily because of an immaturity in mole rat neurons. All mammals live in a low-oxygen state when they are gestating in the womb, but shortly after they are born, they become accustomed to an oxygen-rich environment and their resistance to systemic hypoxia goes away. But naked mole rats, given their living conditions, never shed this resistance to oxygen deprivation.
By studying the naked mole rat’s brain, researchers hope to learn the processes that allow longer neural survival in cases of stroke or pulmonary emergency, which could in turn lead to better options protecting nervous tissue in those situations.