Hibernating bear genes might help to counter muscle atrophy

Bears could help combat muscle atrophy in humans. Of this opinion is a research team led by Michael Gotthardt, neurologist at the Centre for Molecular Medicine Max Delbrueck (MDC) in Berlin.

Bears, in fact, spend many months in hibernation, a period during which they do not do any physical activity or movement. After these prolonged periods of inactivity their muscles seem to have suffered nothing at all despite the fact that for several months the body has been in a state of stasis with the metabolism and heart rate decreasing sharply and the amount of nitrogen in the blood.

Scientists from the Gotthardt team are therefore studying the muscle cells of bears in relation to the contrast to muscle atrophy, a disease that can occur in humans in different circumstances, as explained by Douaa Mugahid, the author of a study published in Scientific Reports.

“For me, the beauty of our work has been to learn how nature has perfected a way to maintain muscle function in the difficult conditions of hibernation,” Mugahid says in a press release. “If we are able to better understand these strategies, we will be able to develop new, non-intuitive methods to better prevent and treat muscle atrophy in patients.”

That’s why the researchers examined muscle samples from grizzly bears taken during both hibernation and other months. The analysis was carried out with various techniques including mass spectrometry, to understand what genes and proteins are involved, a fairly complicated task because the complete genome of this animal has never been sequenced.

The researchers were able to find proteins that affect the metabolism of amino acids during hibernation, proteins that allow muscle cells to rely on a larger amount of non-essential amino acids (NEAA).

Researchers think that perhaps NEAA could be stimulated in human muscle cells if the human body produced the same type of amino acid. And even if it didn’t, the scientists explain, it could induce human muscle to produce the same NEAA as bears by activating particular metabolic pathways during longer periods of rest or during prolonged periods when there is a total lack of physical activity.

Researchers have already found some genes that seem to be quite interesting in this sense, including some involved in glucose and amino acid metabolism and one involved in the development of circadian rhythms, and they promise to perform experiments with mice.