Dementia affects millions of people worldwide and the race to find the most effective treatment has not come to a halt. A recent discovery made by researchers may provide a ray of light for dementia patients as it showed that a "cold-shock" protein, which is found in the blood of winter swimmers, has also been shown to reduce the rate of the onset of dementia.

The research, which has already been shared in online lectures such as the "Mechanisms to Medicines in Neurodegeneration by Prof. Giovanna Mallucci," found that human beings also produce the "cold-shock" protein, which is the same protein found in hibernating mammals.

Prof Giovanna Mallucci, head of the UK Dementia Research Institute's Centre at the University of Cambridge, says that the discovery of the "cold-shock" protein could help researchers reach new and better drug treatments for dementia. Although it is still at an early stage, it shows great promise as it focuses on the ability of mammals to hibernate.

For a long time, doctors have known that cooling people down in certain situations may protect their brains. Examples of these are people who have cardiac operations or those with head injuries. They are cooled during surgery. What is still being left to fully understand is how or why the cold has a protective effect on the brain.

In people suffering from dementia, their early stages show that their brain connections are lost, leading to a host of symptoms like memory loss and mood swings. Prof Mallucci found that in animals that hibernate though, while they also lose their brain connections during hibernation, these are reformed when they wake in spring.

In 2015, it was discovered that RBM3, the "cold-shock" protein, may hold the key in the formation of new connections. Ordinary mice, Alzheimer's mice, and prion or neurodegenerative mice were cooled down to the point of being hypothermic, at a temperature below 35 degrees celsius. When they were rewarmed, the ordinary mice showed a surge in RBM3 protein and were found to have regenerated synapses. However, Alzheimer's and prion mice were not able to do so.

Prof Mallucci believes that a drug that could boost RBM3 production may help slow down the onset of the mental illness in humans. To further test the presence of this "cold-shock" protein, a group of winter swimmers volunteered to go hypothermic on a regular basis, in the years 2016, 2017, and 2018. A control group was a Tai Chi group who practised at the side of the pool where the swimmers were swimming.

The researchers found that a number of swimmers showed elevated RBM3 proteins, but the elevation was not found in the Tai Chi group, BBC reported.

Swimming in Winter
Cold water and dementia. Photo: Pixabay

Prof Mallucci said that the challenge now is to find a drug, which could potentially stimulate the production of RBM3 in humans, more importantly, to prove that it is effective in delaying dementia. She noted though that there are risks associated with getting cold, and these risks outweigh any possible benefits from immersing oneself in cold water. She added that cold water immersion is not a potential treatment for dementia.