Can naked mole rats solve autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia? || EXPERIMENTALS: Moles (part 1)


– [Narrator] How many
mysteries can we actually hold in the palm of our hand? What if I told you the naked mole rat was one such mystery? Here, I’ll show you what I mean. (mysterious music) (squeaking) In the deep dark depths of the internet I found this educational
film made in London in 1952. It’s an introduction of sorts
to heterocephalus glaber, or better known as, the naked mole rat. – [Film Narrator] This
extraordinary little animal comes from east Africa, where he lives in the savannah lands on
the edge of the dessert. Most of his life is spent underground. Like me, he has only
a few scattered hairs, which sprout out of his body. Good gracious me, just
look at that. (laughing) – [Narrator] Nowhere in the
film does the narrator mention that naked mole rats are eusocial. Eusocial meaning they live
in cooperative broods. Think ants, termites, and bees. (buzzing) There are queens and workers,
mating and non-mating groups. (gasping) Now, there are only two mammalian species considered truly eusocial. And, both are species of mole rat. That’s a fact you’d think a film about the awesome animal might mention, right? Because it had already
been a hundred years since the mole rat was
scientifically described. But, it wasn’t until
1984 that a zoologist, Jennifer Jarvis, first
observed naked mole rats’ complex cooperative society. Maybe now you see what I mean. A naked mole rat sized mystery, literally in the palm of this guy’s hand. But, why do these creatures have this unique social structure? And, how’s it connected to
their unusual abilities? Because they have some
pretty unusual abilities. For example, they can live for 30 years, which is totally unusual given its size. They rarely get cancer. They can survive 18
minutes without oxygen. And then, there’s arguably the species most compelling quirk, a
perplexing environmental trigger naked mole rats share with some humans. All because of a genetic mutation only naked mole rats
and these humans have. This is psychology
professor Dan McCloskey. And yeah, he’s surrounded
by naked mole rats. – When I tell people about my research, in some ways what I’m doing
is looking at computers and seeing when small hairless
rodents use the toilet. – [Narrator] Okay, maybe
that’s an oversimplification. What McCloskey’s done is recreate a colony of naked mole rats inside his lab. Their secretive,
underground world in Africa is now on display in a Tupperware
kingdom in Staten Island. – By using radiofrequency identification, or RFID, we basically
put a chip under the skin of each one of the animals
in every single colony, and track their movements 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, more
than 10 times a second. – [Narrator] Here’s a question, why watch every single micro-movement
of 300 small hairless rodents? – It’s interesting to
consider naked mole rats almost the humans of the rodent kingdom. We have more genes in
common with naked mole rats than we do with your
typical laboratory animals, mice and rats. So, we can learn things about our genes probably by studying the naked mole rat. – [Narrator] McCloskey calls
naked mole rats superheroes. – They are superheroes in many ways. They can do things that we can’t do. They live in ways that we don’t live, and couldn’t fathom living. They live in conditions
that we couldn’t tolerate. Their vulnerability, sort
of ironically, is our world. Naked mole rats are not, in most cases, designed to go above ground. The nest is the perfect environment. And, their physiology
is really built around that nest environment to
be ideally suited for it. So, if you take any naked mole rat, and put them in a
condition that reproduces what they might experience in
east Africa above the ground, 110 degrees, normal air, they’ll actually have an epileptic seizure. – [Narrator] Which brings us back to why we’re tracking mole rats. Because, as it turns
out, one of the mysteries encoded in their DNA could
be very important to humans. – And, we think the gene
that makes the naked mole rat sensitive to environment is the same one that makes certain humans
with family histories of certain forms of epilepsy,
schizophrenia, and autism, sensitive to the environment as well. Adult naked mole rats, in many ways, are affected by environment very much the same way that human babies would be. For example, so when kids
before the age of five have a fever of about
103, their body warms up, and as a result they
start hyperventilating, they breathe faster. – [Narrator] Oxygen is good,
carbon dioxide is bad, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Yeah, oxygen is the key
ingredient in breathing. But, CO2 also plays an important
role inside our bodies. – When a person has a panic attack, we know that there are changes
in their brain and body. And, one of the ways to calm them down is to re-breathe their own air, to have them breathe higher
levels of carbon dioxide. – [Narrator] We need CO2
to keep things in balance. (blowing) So, when kids with certain
genetic predispositions have a fever and lose
carbon dioxide (popping). – As a result, they have a seizure. So this is a great opportunity for us to try to figure out exactly how you get from hyperventilation and
loss of CO2 to that seizure. – [Narrator] Naked mole
rats have been around for about 35 million years. They probably evolved
from old world porcupines. Moving through life underground. The answer to preventing
these seizures in humans might be in better understanding what it’s like to live down there. What it’s like to be a naked mole rat. In a world so unlike ours. – When you have 300 naked mole rats piled on in one nest area,
within an entire burrow, we see that the CO2
levels are extraordinary. They’re much higher than
humans could tolerate. We know that the levels of CO2
that these animals experience in their nest is like putting 1,100 people in an eight by eight elevator, right. So, these are extreme conditions that none of us would wanna experience. But yet, this is what they seek out. We have reason to
believe that their brains are very much like a
newborn brain in humans. And, that they have a specific need for a high level of CO2 in
order for them to feel calm. So, evolution has shaped
this vulnerability into a power, into keeping them together, and clustered in their nest,
and working in high numbers to coordinate their activity. If they’re not relaxing in
the nest, they’re out working. And, if they’re not doing
one of those two things, they’re likely to feel anxious,
or worse, have a seizure. – [Narrator] Naked mole
rats are bound together. 300 naked mole rats exhale, 300
naked mole rats feel calmer. And, 300 naked mole rats
don’t have a seizure. A cycle that keeps them in one colony for their whole lives. But, that also means they can’t leave. – One of the big mysteries
about naked mole rats is, okay, perfectly fine,
you have this family of animals that live together
in this large colony. And, you’re telling me that
they can’t leave the colony otherwise they’re at
serious risk of dying. So, how you get more than one
family of naked mole rats. There must be exceptions to the rule. We see occasionally that
some animals are resting in the non-nest areas of our colonies. And, we think that’s telling us that these animals might be
habituating to normal air, and becoming more used to
the air that we breathe, so that they could be more
equipped to be come above ground. – [Narrator] This is amazing. What he’s saying is,
they don’t need the same CO2 levels as the rest of their colony. – They can undergo a physiological change that makes them well suited for
the aboveground environment. They look different,
they behave different. We think it’s something systemic, something that’s in their blood. And, maybe something that
we can treat people with to make them less prone
to fever induced seizures. Or, maybe some issues with epilepsy, schizophrenia, and autism. So, maybe naked mole rats figured this out 35 million years ago, and we
just have to follow their lead, and figure out how to do it. – [Narrator] It’s the next naked mole rat sized mystery to solve. (squeaking) (mysterious music)