Squirrel biology may hold an unlikely fix for avoiding brain damage in stroke patients

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On paper, there’s next to nothing we can learn from squirrels. Barring an appetite for nuts, there seems to be precious little we have in common – but it’s this sense of difference which may offer an unlikely lifeline to stroke patients.

When squirrels hibernate, scientists from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) discovered, a cellular process called SUMOylation accelerates, offering protection to the squirrel brains. Brain cells which would normally whither and die when deprived of their usual blood flow survive the full length of the hibernation period.

Most strokes are caused by a blood clot which prevents oxygenated blood from reaching the brain. Doctors operating on stroke patients have to remove the clot as quickly as possible – the longer they take, the more likely it is for brain cells to have died, and for the sufferer to live with permanent disability if they survive at all. Of the 100,000 or so people who have strokes in the UK every year, around two thirds will leave hospital with some kind of disability.

By mimicking the squirrel hibernation process, the researchers reasoned, could they buy the doctors more time to work on the clot without consequences for the patient’s health?

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