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We Could Learn a Thing Or Two About Social Distancing from Mole-Rats

African naked mole-rats are terrible at social distancing. They like to live in close quarters in stuffy underground colonies. In fact, while humans are self-isolating for the sake of health, a study in Current Biology found that mole-rats actually depend on their seemingly uncomfortable lifestyle for survival.

Because of a genetic trait, the mole-rats require a stuffy habitat for balanced brain functioning. The results could help researchers better understand how some humans end up with the same gene variant, which has been seen in people with autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.

Professors Dan P. McCloskey and Michael E. Kress, both of the College of Staten Island and The Graduate Center, Professor Emeritus Edward F. Meehan (College of Staten Island), and former Graduate Center Biology Ph.D. students Michael Zions, Donald Thevalingam, and Edmund C. Jenkins were authors on the study. Meehan passed away before the study was published and the other authors dedicated it in his honor. 

Our brains require a certain amount of inhibition to function well, and a protein called KCC2 normally helps inhibit neurons. In the new study, the researchers saw that African naked mole-rats have a mutation in the gene for KCC2, called the R952H variant. This means they have a harder time suppressing brain activity.

But carbon dioxide suppresses brain activity too, so living with high concentrations of it might help the mole-rats’ brains work properly. This could explain why the mole-rats live in their stale underground nests, showing panic responses and even having seizures when exposed to surface air.

The gene variant could even give a biological reason as to why the mole-rats lead “eusocial” lives, never leaving their colony to start a new family: Venturing out into fresh air causes their brains to panic. The researchers confirmed this connection by finding a very similar genetic variant in the Damaraland mole-rat, the only other eusocial mammal.

Because the KCC2-R952H variant has been reported in people with autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and epilepsy, the study proposes that the naked mole-rat could be used as a model to find treatments for people with this genetic difference.

“The link to humans with the KCC2-R952H variant is intriguing and drives some of our questions,” McCloskey said. “Now that we have ideas about how the naked mole-rats compensate for this variant, we ask whether this a useful approach for humans.”