A protein that researchers hope can stop the development of dementia has been detected in winter swimmers at Hampstead Heath lido
Swimming in cold water could help protect the human brain from dementia, a study involving users of Hampstead Heath lido suggests
Researchers at the University of Cambridge believe that a so-called “cold shock” protein could be the key to the development of treatments that delay the onset of degenerative diseases
Production of the protein, known as RBM3, appeared to be triggered in mice when their bodies were cooled to the point of hypothermia and subsequently helped protect their brains.
It was more difficult to determine if this could be reproduced in humans, however, as ethical concerns regarding the induction of hypothermia stood in the way of testing
When news of the stalemate reached a group of swimmers who spend their winters in the unheated lido on Parliament Hill, London, they decided to offer their services to the researchers.
They pointed out that their body temperature regularly reaches the point of hypothermia during their favorite hobby and suggested that they might be suitable subjects for a study
It follows that, for three winters between 2016 and 2018, a team of scientists tested swimmers for the protein and found significant levels of RBM3 in many of them.
Giovanna Mallucci, associate director of the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, said « therapeutic hypothermia » is also used to protect the brains of patients and babies undergoing certain types of surgery
« The operation of cooling is not fully understood, » she said at a recent virtual conference, where the results were presented
« (The swimmers) suffer from self-induced hypothermia, they swim in frozen water and we have worked with these people
« We are testing RBM3 in the human brain in operated patients and (we have found) that it goes up, that it goes up in babies and that it goes up in swimmers
« The important thing here is that we have a cold shock response in humans which is like that in mice »
The protein could potentially help in the treatment of conditions such as dementia by fighting the destruction of synapses that occur in the early stages of the disease
The 2015 study found that mice without degenerative diseases could recover their synapses once they returned from their hypothermic state, while those with the disease could not
The mice that recovered were found to have high levels of RBM3 which were not present in other mice, suggesting that the protein had a key role to play in recovery
Later experiment artificially increased RBM3 levels in mice and found it could prevent brain cell death in early stages of degenerative diseases
Professor Mallucci hopes discovery of protein in cold water swimmers could help pave the way for the development of treatments using RBM3 to fight degenerative conditions
The scientific breakthrough comes as cold-water swimming booms in popularity in the UK, with more and more people taking up the hobby during the lockdown
The National Open Water Coaching Association (NOWCA), which promotes safe open water swimming, said 110,000 people swam at the 40 sites it works with during this year’s summer season – an increase of 85% compared to 2019
Chess Roffe Ridgard, an officer with NOWCA, said many cold water swimmers she works with describe the « extremely » positive impact it has on their physical and mental health
She said: “We have a lot of people who join us (in the winter) who came out of the military with post-traumatic stress disorder, we have people who have a history of self-harm. – it can be very therapeutic «
Some visitors to open water sites say they have had it recommended by their doctor, while mental health charity Mind has also championed the hobby, Ms Roffe Ridgard said.
She cautioned, however, that new swimmers should make sure they are fully educated on how to stay safe when exercising in cold water, as this induces a shock that can have a potentially extreme or even fatal reaction in the body
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Dementia, cold, Giovanna Mallucci, brain
World news – GB – Swimming in cold water « could help protect against dementia »
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