Hibernating May Benefit for Brain Health


Are you feeling like doing as the bears do?. It turns out hibernating might turn on a mechanism that protects the brain which may help scientists develop new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. So, can all hibernate for the benefit of our health.

Researchers believe a defect in the process may contribute to the death of brain cells in people with these disorders. By simulating the effects of brain cooling in mice, they have uncovered a possible new target for drugs designed to block neuro-degeneration.

Giovanna Mallucci, professor, Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology, University of Leicester who led the team from the Medical Research Council’s Toxicology Unit, and has noted that scientists have understood for some time that slowing down and cooling the brain prevents damage to brain cells.  The goal is to better understand how cooling activates a process that prevents the loss of brain cells,. And it apparently happens when animals hibernate.

It is well known that during hibernation, when a mammal’s core temperature cools to far below its normal level, brain cell connections are lost. As the animal comes out of hibernation and warms up, the connections are reformed and normal brain activity is restored.

In fact, in humans, dogs, and other species, hypothermia actually provides some  brain protection. People and dogs have survived hours after a cardiac arrest with no brain damage after falling into icy water. And artificially cooling the brains of babies that have suffered oxygen loss at birth is a technique employed to protect them against brain damage.

Cooling and hibernation lead to the production of molecules in the brain known as “cold-shock” proteins.

In the new study, scientists reduced the body temperature of healthy mice to 16-18C – similar to the temperature of a hibernating small mammal – for 45 minutes. Mice do not naturally hibernate. But the scientists found the synapses – neural connections – in their brains still dismantled on cooling and regenerated on re-warming.

The researchers then repeated the experiment using mice bred to reproduce features of Alzheimer’s and prion disease (a neurodegenerative disease caused by rogue prion proteins, such as CJD). They found that the capacity for synapse regeneration disappeared as the disease progressed, accompanied by a loss of RBM3. When levels of RBM3 protein were artificially boosted, this alone was enough to protect the mice and prevent synapse and brain cell depletion, reducing memory loss and extending lifespan.

The next step may be to find drugs which can induce the effects of hibernation and hypothermia. The research is published in BBC Health News.