Brain Freeze: New Alzheimer's Drug Mimics Brain Preservation That Occurs When Animals Hibernate

sleeping bear
The brain of the hibernating bear has a lot to teach science. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

During hibernation, an animal’s body temperature drops to dangerous levels in order to preserve energy for the long winter. Normally, this drop in temperature would cause serious brain damage, but amazingly the animals wake up unharmed. Recently, researchers from the University of Leicester have found the enzyme which preserves the brain cells during hibernation, and believe this enzyme could also be used to help preserve the memory of Alzheimer’s patients.

The enzyme, called RBM3, works by helping animals to rebuild the brain cells lost during hibernation, The Telegraph reported. In a recent study, researchers purposely dropped the body temperature of mice with an Alzheimer’s-like disease, and a healthy group, to around 60 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature is similar to what hibernating mammals will experience. In doing so, they observed that although the RBM3 protein helped healthy mice to preserve brain function, it appeared not to work in the mice with Alzheimer’s.

The enzyme exists in humans, but, like in the mice, for reasons not yet known, doesn’t work in Alzheimer’s patients.

Although we often associate hibernation as a sort of deep sleep for animals, in reality it's more similar to a deep freeze — like the cryogenics we see in science fiction. It’s this freezing property that helps to retain brain cells. Cold temperatures have also been observed to help preserve brain function. For example, people who suffer cardiac arrest after falling into icy water have been shown to have no brain damage despite oxygen being cut off for extended periods. Also, it’s common for doctors to cool the brains of babies who experience oxygen deprivation at birth as a way to protect the brains from possible damage. While in theory freezing does well to preserve brain function, in reality, freezing the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is not a reasonable solution.

“We’ve known for some time that cooling can slow down or even prevent damage to brain cells, but reducing body temperature is rarely feasible in practice: it’s unpleasant and involves risks such as pneumonia and blood clots," Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who led the research team, explained to The Telegraph.

The team hopes it can solve this problem by creating a drug similar to RBM3, which would work on Alzheimer’s patients without the need for deep freeze.

"Just as anti-inflammatory drugs are preferable to cold baths in bringing down a high temperature, we need to find drugs which can induce the effects of hibernation and hypothermia,” added Dr. Hugh Perry, chairman of the MRC’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, which funded the research.

Source: Mallucci GR, Peretti D, Bastide A. RBM3 mediates structural plasticity and protective effects of cooling in neurodegeneration.Nature. 2014.

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