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Academic Minute

Dr. Thomas Park, University of Illinois at Chicago – Naked Mole Rats

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Thomas Park of the University of Illinois at Chicago explains the hardy nature of the naked mole-rat and how an understanding of the odd creature could improve medical outcomes in humans.

Thomas Park is a professor of biology and Neuro Group Coordinator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his research is focused on the neurobiology of sensory information processing. His research group uses two model systems: sound localization in echolocating bats, and orientation to touch in naturally blind naked mole- rats.

About Dr. Park

Dr. Thomas Park – Naked Mole Rats

Naked mole-rats look like pink, wrinkly sausages with huge buck teeth.  And while they’re not exactly beautiful, they are providing us with clues that may help human victims of heart attack and stroke. We found that brains from adult naked mole-rats show infant-like characteristics that keep their cells alive in times of life-threatening oxygen deprivation. 

Naked mole-rats are weird in a number of ways: They are blind, naked, cancer-free, and don’t feel chronic pain. And naked mole-rats live ten times longer than other similar-sized rodents. And their underground colonies contain hundreds of individuals living like termites with a single breeding queen.  With so many individuals living in unventilated subterranean burrows, this species has evolved to survive in air that is very low in oxygen.

In humans and most other animals, very low oxygen typically causes brain damage in adults.  This is the situation when a heart attack or stroke keeps oxygenated blood from reaching the brain. However the brains of infants are much more resistant to oxygen deprivation compared to adults.

Our new study on naked mole-rats shows that the brains of adults of this unusual species display many of the same brain features that protect the brains of infants from damage due to low oxygen. For example, brain cells of babies are protected from the toxic levels of calcium that flood in under oxygen deprivation in adults.  This is because babies have many more calcium channels that close during oxygen deprivation.  As we mature, we loose this type of calcium channel. The remarkable thing about naked mole-rats is that they are able to retain the infant type of calcium channels throughout their very long life. The next goal is to figure out how to provide this protection to adult humans during times of catastrophic oxygen deprivation.

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