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Naked mole-rats can survive without oxygen for 18 minutes

Smithsonian's National Zoo / Flickr CC

Naked mole-rats can survive up to 18 minutes deprived of oxygen — without damaging tissues or vital organs, a new study shows. Mice in a zero-oxygen environment died in 20 seconds; naked mole-rats in that same environment lost consciousness, but then resumed breathing when they were exposed to air. They rejoined their colony without any signs of brain damage or behavioral problems.

Sound smart: The process the oxygen-deprived naked mole-rats switch to in order to avoid brain and tissue damage is fructose-driven glycolysis.

How they do it: Naked mole-rats have learned to live underground, where they've adapted to lower oxygen levels (and higher carbon dioxide levels) than the rest of us who live above ground. As a result, mole-rats switch to another energy pathway when there's no oxygen. They shut down one pathway — converting energy for our body through the breathing process — and switch to another that metabolizes glucose (the only energy source the brain and red blood cells can use) and avoids the build-up of fructose in tissues, which causes damage.

Why it matters to us: Humans suffer severe or permanent damage to tissue after only a few minutes when the brain is deprived of oxygen. While free divers have learned how to hyperventilate with pure oxygen and then hold their breath for much longer periods of time (the world record is 22 minutes), ordinary humans don't have that luxury. This new research will help scientists with new strategies for preventing tissue damage in heart disease and stroke patients.