Squirrels could hold secret to preventing brain damage for stroke patients

Sarah Knapton
Squirrels have a cellular process which prevents them getting brain damage when they hibernate  - Copyright (c) 2016 Rex Features. No use without permission.

Squirrels could hold the key to helping stroke patients avoid brain damage, scientists believe.

Researchers in the US have discovered that when squirrels hibernate a protective process occurs in their cells which allows their brain to function with reduced blood flow and oxygen.

When they awaken the animals suffer no ill-effects despite being deprived of essential nutrients.  

During an ischemic stroke the blood supply, containing sugar and oxygen, is cut off to the brain, causing cells to die, which often leads to paralysis and speech problems.

Scientists from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) believe that creating a drug which could trigger the same cellular changes of hibernating squirrels could prevent that brain damage.

"If we could only turn on the process hibernators appear to use to protect their brains, we could help protect the brain during a stroke and ultimately help people recover," said first author Joshua Bernstock, a graduate student at NINDS.

Around 100,000 people have strokes each year in Britain, and 85 per cent will suffer ischemic strokes, with almost two thirds of the survivors leaving hospital with a disability. There 1.2 million people currently living in the UK with the after-effects from a stroke.

Two thirds of people leave hospital after having a stroke with a disability  Credit: Peter DazeleyGetty Images Contributor

Currently, the only way to minimize stroke-induced cell death is to remove the clot as soon as possible.

But if a treatment could be quickly administered which helped the brain survive without blood and oxygen, outcomes for patients could be radically improved, experts believe.

Researchers found that a cellular process called SUMOlyation goes into overdrive when squirrels hibernate, protecting their cells. They found that process could be boosted by the enzyme ebselen.

When ebselen was injected into animal brain cells, they stayed alive, even when deprived of blood and oxygen.

Further experiments also showed that ebselen boosted SUMOylation in the brains of healthy mice.

"For decades scientists have been searching for an effective brain-protecting stroke therapy to no avail. said Dr Francesca Bosetti, program director at NINDS.

“If the compound identified in this study successfully reduces tissue death and improves recovery in further experiments, it could lead to new approaches for preserving brain cells after an ischemic stroke."

In numbers | Stroke

Mr Bernstock said he hoped the research would encourage other scientists to look to nature to solve pressing medical problems.

"As a physician-scientist, I really like to work on projects that have clear relevance for patients," he added.

"I always want outcomes that can lend themselves to new therapeutics for people who are in need."

The research was published in The FASEB Journal, the journal of the Foundation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

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