We’ve recently endured a spate of breathtakingly nasty weather hereabouts, a brutal meteorological smackdown to geezers like me who selfishly ponder whether climate change will soon deliver Kansas City winters to Minneapolis. Thankfully, I seldom need to drive anywhere, and my one-mile trek to the office — when I’ve ventured there at all — has generally been more picturesque than pitiable. If there’s any other upside to this protracted sub-zero snowfest, I may have Syrian hamsters to thank.
Stay with me. We’ll get there.
My response to inclement winter weather as a youth depended upon whether it produced a day off from school. We would hover around the radio on the kitchen counter, ignoring our cold cereal and praying that some capricious deity at District 621 would smile on us by canceling classes. If not, I’d pull on my galoshes and trudge sullenly to the bus stop. But if we were granted a reprieve, my older brother and I would celebrate by embarking on recreational endeavors we seldom pursued on other occasions. I’m not talking about anything as pedestrian as sledding or ice skating. I seem to recall at least one occasion when infrastructure was involved.
I remember quite vividly shoveling a path from the house to one of the backyard clothesline poles, clearing a swath of snow and laying down several large sheets of plywood. We then attached a backboard and basket to the pole and engaged in a lively hoops contest — until the frigid air turned our basketball into a frozen lump of rubber.
While our recent descent into the polar vortex has offered a few serendipitous reprieves from business as usual, I find myself searching in vain for the enthusiasm that greeted the snow days of my youth. I may stand in awe of a robust blizzard these days, but it no longer sends me scurrying outside to construct some memorable moment. Unlike many of my snowshoeing, skiing, and ice-skating colleagues, I’m perfectly content to declare my unconditional surrender when brutal weather invades. I lay down my arms — along with my legs and the rest of me — and curl up on the couch with a clear conscience to hibernate until the storm passes. That may seem to indicate a lack of character, but if recent observations of sleepy Syrian hamsters are any indication, it’s a course of action that may have salutary effects on my geezer brain.
Spanish researchers monitored the neurological activity in these furry rodents before, during, and after their three-to-four-day hibernation stints and discovered that the sleep process mitigated the accumulation of tau, a protein known to contribute to Alzheimer’s. Published last week in the Journal of Proteome Research, the study suggests that the findings may help researchers solve the complex dementia puzzle.
The hamsters’ long winter naps apparently alter the structure and metabolism of their brains. While they’re snoozing, tau accumulates just as it does in an Alzheimer’s sufferer, but when they awaken, their brains produce a surplus of phosphatidic acid, which activates an enzyme that destroys the offending tau.
“In general,” writes lead author Caroline Gonzalez-Riano, “this study may provide insights into novel neuroprotective agents because the alterations described throughout the hibernation process are reversible.”
All this hamster hype, of course, may have only peripheral relevance to geezers like me, who haven’t yet developed the lassitude for a three-day nap — though when the mercury dropped to 25 below the other day I have to admit I considered it. Still, there’s something to like about the notion that awakening from a long winter’s snooze might actually clear the tangles in your aging brain. In this weather, such a sharp mind would no doubt come to a quick and brilliant conclusion: Pull up the covers, roll over, and go back to sleep.