Research Spotlight: Squirrel hibernation may apply to humans

By Jeremia Schrock

Sun Star Reporter

“As someone who got interested in the brain as a teenager because of my interest in consciousness, it was the coolest phenomenon I had ever seen. No pun intended,” said Kelly Drew, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry for the Institute of Arctic Biology.

Drew and a group of her students have been engaged in some important research this summer: they have been studying arctic ground squirrels and their hibernation techniques, beginning their research as far back as 1992.

Why are ground squirrel hibernation techniques important?  If scientists can understand how ground squirrels hibernate, they may be able to apply it to human medicine.

Hibernation is a state of greatly reduced metabolic activity and lowered body temperature adopted by certain mammals as a method to survive winter. This means that an animal’s heart-rate is slowed to only a few beats per minute, the core body-temperature drops, and the brain ceases to emit waves.  In other words, brain dead.

Ground squirrel hibernation differs from that of larger mammals, such as bears, in that it is temporary, occuring daily, usually at night or during the winter.  This temporary hibernation is what Drew and Tulasi Jinka, a graduate student currently working with Drew, are interested in.

Jinka recently attempted to pharmacologically “induce a torpor-like effect in dietary-restricted rats” in order to study the effects of drug-induced hibernation.  If torpor can be induced in humans through drugs, the possibilities are endless. One application would be placing mortally-wounded soldiers into suspended animation until life-saving medical treatments can be applied. As Jinka writes, other conditions that would benefit from such a drug include: “stroke, cardiac arrest, hemorrhagic shock, and multi-organ failure, to name a few.”

Jinka is currently focusing on how the central nervous system regulates hibernation. “A better understanding of how the central nervous system regulates hibernation and the metabolic suppression and successful pharmacological translation into non-hibernating species will pave way in finding out novel therapies in (human) patients.”

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2 Responses

  1. S. Weiss says:

    Research is exciting. Article may be inaccurate, in that bears seem not to actually hibernate, although bears’ behavior may differ from that in the Lower 48.

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