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What can the human brain learn from the Arctic ground squirrel?

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

How do hibernating mammals survive so long in Alaska's extreme cold, and what insights can they offer humans on brain placidity, Alzheimer's and other degenerative brain disease?

According to Scientific American, University of Alaska Fairbanks biologist Brian Barnes is interested in the same question. Barnes is studying Arctic ground squirrel brains during hibernation. His research shows that the sleeping squirrel's most vital organ, which can survive severe temperature drops for long periods during winter, receives 80 to 90 percent of the animal's energy store. Even when the squirrel's body temperature drops so low the creature has to expend precious energy shivering itself back from the edge, the brain never gives out.

However, it's not hibernation that has the scientists excited. It's the animal's remarkable ability to rebound from the compromising process.

Hibernation is extremely harsh on the little critter's grey matter. The cold eliminates thousands (sometimes millions) of synapses, vital connections between brain cells, which die off during the rest. Something similar happens when human experience significant brain disease. Yet, unlike humans, the squirrels are equipped to bounce back rapidly.

Within two days of waking from their seven (or so) month slumber, the mammals are back in action and as good as new. Scientists are still in the process of documenting exactly what happens to allow for such a quick and full recovery of the squirrel's brain. If they can figure it out, a cure for degenerative brain diseases among humans may loom.

To read much more on the Arctic ground squirrel and its fascinating contribution to science click here.