Mole rats could help humans survive heart attacks and strokes

By Amy Wimmer Schwarb • Published: October 19th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

They aren’t pretty. But a nearly blind, nearly hairless, buck-toothed rodent called the naked mole rat might know something we don’t about how to protect against heart attacks, strokes and maybe even cancer.

Researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Texas are studying the unusual capabilities of these animals, the only mammals known to live in large colonies in societies that function much like bees or ants.

The three-inch-long mole rats, native to Africa, are known for successfully adapting to some tough living conditions: narrow, underground, oxygen-deprived tunnels.

Typically, a mammal brain cell starved of oxygen cannot regulate how much calcium it absorbs, and calcium can be lethal to the cell. But these ugly critters have calcium channels in their brain cells, which close when oxygen is in short supply, protecting their brains.

Human infants are born with a similar ability to protect themselves from the effects of calcium, but unlike naked mole rats, as we age our calcium channels lose the ability to close. And that lost ability becomes dangerous when a heart attack or stroke occurs. In those moments, oxygen-rich blood cannot reach the brain, and human brain cells become susceptible to lethal calcium.

Researchers hope they can help humans survive strokes and heart attacks by lassoing more information about how the naked mole rat blocks calcium and its lethal effects. The mammals have been known to mankind since the 1800s but have only been studied in the past quarter-century.

And we could have even more to learn from these rodents: Despite living in homes rich in carbon dioxide and ammonia, mole rats can also resist pain and cancers. Sounds like mole rats do know a thing or two.