The air in underground colonies of naked mole rats is disgusting and limited, high in carbon dioxide and low in oxygen. If you had to breathe it, you would not only be grossed out, but you'd get brain damage.
Yet these blind and nearly hairless creatures have adapted to survive in low-oxygen environments. In fact, a new study finds, they may be the record-setters among mammals for being able to survive without oxygen.
The toothy rodents, which live much longer than most rodents — can go more than a half hour under extreme hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, without damage to brain cells.
"In the most extreme cases, naked mole rat neurons maintain function more than six times longer than mouse neurons after the onset of oxygen deprivation," said study team member John Larson from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The findings, detailed in the Dec. 9 issue of the journal NeuroReport, could yield clues for better treatment of human brain injuries associated with heart attack, stroke and accidents where the brain is starved of vital oxygen, the researchers said.
All mammals start out in low-oxygen environments — the womb. But naked mole rats, also known for being immune to pain as extreme as acid burns — seem to retain the ability to get by on less.
"The trick now will be to learn how naked mole rats have been able to retain infant-like brain protection from low oxygen, so we can use this information to help people who experience temporary loss of oxygen to the brain in situations like heart attacks, stroke or drowning," said Larson's colleague, Thomas Park.
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