Could hamsters provide new clues to Alzheimer’s? Popular pet clears the build-up of toxic proteins from its brain after hibernation
- During hibernation, a Syrian hamster’s brain changes to protect its neurons
- Any protein plaques are fully and rapidly reversed when the rodent wakes up
- Substance is five times higher in brains of hibernating hamsters than controls
While many see hamsters as just a popular pet, the furry creatures may actually help scientists understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease.
A study found when the rodents hibernate, their brains undergo structural changes that help their neurons survive even during low temperatures.
Any protein clumps – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s – are also fully and rapidly reversed when the animals wake up.
The researchers hope further studies will help uncover what happens in the brains of hamsters to protect their brain networks.
The Syrian hamster may help scientists understand Alzheimer’s, research suggests (stock)
The research was carried out by CEU San Pablo University in Madrid and led by PhD student Carolina Gonzalez-Riano, from the department of pharmacy.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and affects more than 520,000 people in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.
The disease has around 5.7million sufferers in the US, Alzheimer’s Association statistics show.
The researchers chose to analyse the Syrian hamster species Mesocricetus auratus due to it hibernating for just three-to-four days at a time when exposed to the cold or darkness.
When the rodents were examined before, during and after hibernation, the scientists discovered 337 substances change while the animals enter the prolonged, deep sleep.
These substances include amino acids – the building blocks of protein – as well as chemicals that protect the brain from freezing.
A group of lipids known as long-chain ceramides – which may help protect brain damage – were notably higher in the hamsters during hibernation than those who had recently woken up.
The results – published in the Journal of Proteome Research – revealed the largest change occurred in the substance phosphatidic acid, which was a staggering five times higher in the hibernating animals.
Phosphatidic acid is known to activate an enzyme that triggers the protein tau to tangle in areas of the brain responsible for memory.
Tau then spread between nerve cells, breaking down their connections and triggering Alzheimer’s symptoms.
The researchers believe their study demonstrates the Syrian hamster is an ‘excellent model to study substances that could help protect neurons’.
WHAT IS ALZHEIMER’S?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, in which build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.
This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink.
More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the US, where it is the 6th leading cause of death.
As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost.
That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason.
The progress of the disease is slow and gradual.
On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.
- Loss of short-term memory
- Behavioral changes
- Mood swings
- Difficulties dealing with money or making a phone call
- Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
- Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior
- Eventually lose ability to walk
- May have problems eating
- The majority will eventually need 24-hour care
Source: Alzheimer’s Association