The possibility of dementia is a scary one, and it’s a condition that affects so many of our family and friends – which might be why there’s so much study that goes into finding ways to fight it.
Most recently, a team from Cambridge University found that people who swim outdoors regularly in the winter had elevated levels of protein that play a key role in forming brain healthy connections.
The protein in question has been found to help save the brain against other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, too.
Professor Giovanna Mallucci, the Associate Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, talked about the effects in an online lecture.
Researchers have understood for some time that the process of forming new synapses declines over time, and also that this process can be influenced by temperature. Hibernating mammals, for example, experience a loss of synapses when they sleep through the winter, but they are restored upon awakening in the spring.
An earlier paper, published in Nature, demonstrated that a “cold shock” protein in the brain – RBM3 – is responsible.
In mice, exposure to freezing temperatures caused a loss of synapses, but their RBM3 levels skyrocketed as they warmed up, allowing them to form healthy new ones.
Researchers then measured RBM3 levels in a group of outdoor swimming enthusiasts, all of whom became mildly hypothermic during their chilly dips.
When compared to a group of non-swimmers, the ones who swam in cold water had higher levels of RBM3 in their blood, leading to the belief that hypothermic conditions do trigger the release of this key protein in humans, too.
This foundation is exciting and strong, but without peer-reviewed research or other, similar findings, we can’t say for sure that taking winter dips in the water will keep your brain healthy for years to come.
Also, letting yourself get too cold, or wandering too far down the path to hypothermia, can be deadly. So please be safe until scientists are sure it’s something that works.
If the RBM3 protein is shown to help restore synapses, we’ll likely see the development of drugs that can help produce the desired responses without having to go swimming in the chilly water to boot up the reaction.