Could Hibernation Combat Obesity?

Hibernation is a natural mechanism of animals who live in the wild that helps them to survive through the oft unforgiving cold of the winter months.  But while this behavior is not something that we often attribute to human behavior, it might actually possess an interesting benefit to those with metabolic disorders. 

A new study out of the University of Utah advises that bears and other hibernating animals build up their fat reserves during the year when food is plentiful.  During the winter, then, they live off of these fat reserves as they sleep away the cold.  Now, it is important to note that the amount of weight these animals gain before the long sleep would not be healthy in a human model, but the study does point out that these animals are quite fit when they emerge from hibernation. 

University of Utah associate professor in the Department of Neurology & Anatomy, Christopher Gregg, explains, “Hibernators have evolved an incredible ability to control their metabolism.” 

Gregg goes on to say, “Metabolism shapes risks for a lot of different diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. We believe that understand the parts of the genome that are linked to hibernation will help us learn to control risks for some these major diseases.”

To learn more about this, Gregg and study co-author Elliot Ferris analyzed the genomes of mammals, looking for genetic regulatory elements that might serve to explain some of the more remarkable biological capabilities that certain species possess. This includes the striking cancer resistance in elephants and the blood clot resistance we see in dolphins. 

The study, then, aimed to see hibernating species had similar toggles for body fat control that could be regulated through the big sleep. 

Gregg adds, “Since obesity and metabolism shape risks for so many different diseases, the discovery of these parts of the genome is a really exciting insight that lays foundations for many important new research directions.”

Effectively, the researchers identified 364 genetic elements that might play a role in both hibernation and obesity regulation.  Co-author Ferris comments that the “hibernator accelerated regions” associated with the genes linked to obesity is also linked with a syndromic form of obesity.  By unifying data from humans and hibernating animals, then, suggests that we may be able to find—and master—regulatory biological switches in the genome that could control mammalian obesity.