There are thousands of adherents of “walrus” all over the world who are convinced that swimming in cold water helps to strengthen health and prolong youth. In 2018, scientists found that such water treatments can improve mood and positively affect the mental health of people suffering from depressive disorders. And not so long ago, scientists from the University of Cambridge, who studied how cold water affects the cognitive abilities of the brain, came to very interesting conclusions.
What is a “cold shock protein” and what does the hibernation of animals have to do with it?
Scientists have found that immersion in cold water activates the production of a special protein in the brain – RBM3, which is also called “cold shock protein”. I must say right away that this substance is not new to the scientific world. The RBM3 protein is usually produced in mammalian organisms when their bodies are cooled during hibernation. But for people who mostly spend time in the heat, this substance is considered uncharacteristic.
The researchers suggest that RBM3 plays a key role in restoring the mammalian brain after prolonged hibernation. After all, as you know, during winter sleep in the body of animals, all vital processes slow down.
In 2015, a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge conducted an experiment during which two groups of mice – healthy and with neurodegenerative disorders – were put into a state of hypothermia (lowering their body temperature to 35 degrees). After the temperature was restored, the scientists found that in healthy mice, synapses (junctions of nerve cells in the brain) were restored, and at the same time the level of RBM3 protein increased. But in sick animals, all indicators remained unchanged. This result allowed scientists to assume that it is the RBM3 protein that contributes to the formation of new neural connections.
In another study, also conducted on mice, scientists found that the death of brain cells caused by Alzheimer’s disease can be prevented if the level of RBM3 in the body is artificially increased.
What about people?
Scientists and doctors have long known that in some situations, a decrease in the temperature of the human body can serve as an effective protection for the brain. Thus, patients with traumatic brain injuries and those who will undergo heart surgery are put into a state of suspended animation by lowering body temperature. Moreover, even until recently, scientists, although they saw a positive result from such methods, did not fully understand this relationship.
But as it turned out in the course of research, there is a direct link between a decrease in temperature and the restoration / destruction of synapses. In patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, synapses are destroyed. This is what causes the symptoms of dementia, such as confusion, memory lapses, mood swings. As the disease progresses, whole areas of the brain may die off in the patient. By the way, something similar happens with animals that hibernate. During a long winter sleep, as the processes of vital activity slow down, almost 20-30% of synapses die in the brains of such animals. But after waking up, neural connections are miraculously restored.
Cambridge researchers decided to study the effect of the RBM3 protein on the human brain in more detail. The object of their research, the scientists chose a group of swimmers who regularly visited the London outdoor pool, and as a control group were people who regularly engaged in tai chi, but not swimming in cold water. During 3 winters (2016-2018), scientists observed swimmers and regularly measured the amount of protein in their blood. After a thorough analysis of the condition of the representatives of both groups, experts found that when the body temperature of swimmers drops to 34 degrees, the level of RBM3 protein in their bodies increased. In the representatives of the control group, this indicator remained unchanged.
What does this discovery mean for people?
Dementia is one of the most common diseases in the world, affecting elderly people. In the UK alone, the number of patients diagnosed with dementia exceeds 1 million, and their number is projected to double by 2050. At the same time, there is no effective treatment of the disease today.
The discovery made by London scientists, of course, does not mean that everyone who wants to protect themselves from dementia by restoring synapses should immediately take up swimming in cold water. But scientists believe that the results of their research will give impetus to the development of new drugs that can have a similar effect on the human body as swimming in cold water. Moreover, not for all swimmers, cooling the body to 34 degrees can be comfortable and safe, especially if they are beginners in “walrus”.
In addition, the shock of immersion in cold water is accompanied by a sharp increase in heart rate and an increase in blood pressure, which, against the background of cardiovascular diseases, can cause a heart attack or stroke. Sudden immersion in a cold environment can cause convulsions, due to which a person is at risk of drowning. And the longer you stay in cold water, the more slow and awkward your movements become, which sometimes makes it difficult to get out of the water to the shore on your own, which is also extremely dangerous. Therefore, it is important even for experienced swimmers to observe safety rules when going to an open pond in the cold season. And you should never do “walrus” alone, in an unknown body of water or without first making sure that there are no cardiac diseases. But it is quite possible that soon scientists will invent a drug that will increase the level of cold shock protein in the human body without swimming in cold water. Further research into the natural regenerative abilities of living organisms can bring us many more important and useful discoveries.