When you think about hibernating animals, we like to think these lazy mammals have decided to just check out for a few months and ignore their problems. This is far from the case though, when an animal is hibernating they are performing quite an amazing act: they lower their body temperature to near freezing and make their heart rate drop dramatically.
This is something that has fascinated scientists for decades, and now they are trying to unlock the key to hibernation in the name of creating medical breakthroughs. One of the key goals of this research is to find out how the cells of hibernating animals do not die in cold temperatures, learning how they adapt. This knowledge could allow scientists to vastly extend the storage life of human organs, something that could improve transplant rates and save more people.
Furthermore, it could help doctors improve the therapy known as induced hypothermia when a patient’s body temperature is lowered on purpose after a cardiac arrest or brain injury. The technique is used to protect their brain but it can have drastic side effects due to damage caused by the freezing temperatures.
And the key to advancing this research is our little cute garden friends known as the squirrel. The squirrel when hibernating lowers its heartbeat from 200 beats per minute to just 20 beats per minute. When the squirrel hibernates their cytoskeleton, a network of microtubes keeps their cells intact and safe even when exposed to freezing temperatures. However, the cytoskeleton found in humans are unable to do this and deteriorate rapidly when faced with cold temperatures. If researchers are able to understand the differences then they may be able to replicate the squirrel’s cells that allow them to stay strong during freezing.
Researchers have attempted some replications in laboratory conditions and experimented via the use of drugs that mimic the squirrel’s cytoskeleton qualities, the results have been very promising. So Next time you need a life-saving transplant remember to feed your local squirrels and give them your thanks.