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Why diving marine mammals resist brain damage from low oxygen
Date:12/18/2007

SANTA CRUZ, CA-- No human can survive longer than a few minutes underwater, and even a well-trained Olympic swimmer needs frequent gulps of air. Our brains need a constant supply of oxygen, particularly during exercise.

Contrast that with Weddell seals, animals that dive and hunt under the Antarctic sea ice. They hold their breath for as long as 90 minutes, and remain active and mentally alert the whole time. The seals aren't fazed at all by low levels of oxygen that would cause humans to black out. What's their secret"

Certain animals--including dolphins, whales and sea otters--appear to be protected by elevated levels of oxygen-carrying proteins in their brains, according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, led by Terrie Williams, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. The team measured and compared the amounts of these complex oxygen-carrying proteins--called globins--in the cerebral cortex of 16 different mammalian species. The results suggest that some species have evolved the capacity to protect their brains from conditions of low oxygen, also called hypoxia.

"What was remarkable was the level of variability we found," said Williams. "Some animals had three to 10 times more neuroprotecting type globins than others. These wild species may hold many clues about how to turn on protective mechanisms in the mammalian brain."

The discovery could have important implications for understanding stroke and aging in humans, according to Williams. It's not yet clear whether animals of a particular species are born with high amounts of brain globins, or whether their behavior and environment stimulate the production of globins. But in either case, the amounts appear to be malleable. That's promising, she said, because if globin production could be boosted in humans, then brain damage due to disease or aging could potentially be minimized.

"The mammalian brain appears to have a r
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Contact: Tim Stephens
stephens@ucsc.edu
831-459-2495
University of California - Santa Cruz
Source:Eurekalert

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