Friday, 17 April 2015

Ground Squirrels

Since I've been talking about how long it's taking for my muscle to redevelop and how much effort it's been, I was super interested when I heard on CBC's Quirks and Quarks about a study looking at muscle atrophy (degeneration of muscles).

The scientists studied muscle atrophy in ground squirrels (officially in the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, aka striped gopher, aka squinney) and tried to figure out how they can hibernate all winter in their underground burrows but be healthy in the spring. Pre-surgery, I had never considered how animals hibernate for the winter without losing all their muscle mass. Now it's an amazing capability that I wish I could have acquired for those few months.

How hibernation works for these ground squirrels is that they have a regular summer running around the prairies eating as much as possible and trying not to get flattened by cars. But during the winter, they hibernate in their burrows, living off their body fat, with a low body temperature. Every two weeks, they re-warm to normal temperature for a day before starting another two week cycle. In the spring, they pop out of the burrow, skinny but still healthy and with muscles. 

So the scientists decided to put the squirrels through a MRI to see how their muscles develop over the winter without food. They found that the muscle mass decreases during the first part of winter but that during the last two months, the size of the muscles increase even while the body mass declines.

They haven't looked into which protein is responsible for the activation of the muscle growth but think it may have something to do with the liver as that is the only muscle that does not grow in the late-winter. The squirrel has to be using resources from somewhere to keep the muscles strong so the follow-up studies will try to find the source. 

They hope that if the protein is found, it can be applied to help people who need it. Anyone from those with long hospitalizations to the elderly who are not as mobile to astronauts whose muscles decline from lack of resistance.

Of course, this research is at the most preliminary stage possible so no one is going to be getting any muscle growth proteins just yet but it's a great start. It's one thing to know that muscle loss sucks but to go through it is a very different matter. I thought I was prepared but it was a huge shock when I woke up after 5 days and didn't have the strength to lift my head or raise my arms. Considering I'm still recovering from losing all my muscles and not being able to talk for a month, anything that could've helped would have been a huge relief.

If you want the study better explained, you can listen to it here.

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