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The hibernation process that squirrels go through each winter could provide some of the answers to preventing speech loss in humans after a stroke, according to new research.
Scientists from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in the US believe that inducing a hibernation-like state in people who have suffered a stroke could help to prevent brain damage and other consequences like loss of speech from occurring.
When squirrels hibernate, a protective reaction process known as SUMOlyation occurs in their cells, which means their brains can still function even though blood flow and oxygen intake are reduced.
Similarly, when a person suffers an ischemic stroke, their brain can begin to shut down, meaning reduced oxygen intake can cause irreversible damage.
However, the US scientists believe that by triggering that protective reaction that squirrels cells naturally have, they could help to protect the brain from damage, even if blood flow and oxygen intake are severely restricted.
To do this, the researchers are creating a drug containing the enzyme ebselen that is able to induce these cellular changes. In trials, they have injected it into animals and found that they can keep the brain cells alive even when blood and oxygen supplies are drastically reduced.
If their efforts to adapt this treatment for human use prove to be successful, doctors may be able to significantly lower ischemic stroke patients' risk of brain damage, speech loss and even paralysis following the incident.
Dr Francesca Bosetti, programme director at NINDS, commented: "For decades, scientists have been searching for an effective brain-protecting stroke therapy to no avail.
"If the compound identified in this study successfully reduces tissue death and improves recovery in further experiments, it could lead to new approaches for preserving brain cells after an ischemic stroke."
Some 85 per cent of the approximately 100,000 strokes suffered in the UK each year are ischemic strokes, with two-thirds of survivors ending up disabled. There is therefore the potential to save a significant number of lives with this new discovery.
Written by Martin Lambert
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