Another protein (NRG-1), essential for normal brain functioning, was found to remain at a high level throughout the life of the naked mole rat. That protein protects the integrity of neurons, or brain cells, and it may explain how the rat can remain so healthy throughout its long life, according to researchers at Tel Aviv University who are also part of Buffenstein's team.
Other scientists are intrigued with the rat's lifestyle, because it lives in a highly structured colony that largely resembles ant colonies. Much like the ant's queen, one female reigns over the colony, and she alone has babies -- as many as 12 at a time every couple of months. There are many males that serve as fathers, and they -- along with all their offspring -- serve the queen.
According to Texas A & M researchers, the naked mole rat is the most advanced species to live in such an organized colony. Most of the young give up the chance to breed and produce their own broods and spend their lives building the tunnels and the caverns, and the giant room where the queen lives with her servants.
If that lifestyle is painful, the rats wouldn't know it. Sometime during the evolution of the species, the naked mole rat eliminated a chemical from its system that sends signals to the brain that something really hurts -- not even when exposed to the bite of capsaicin, the substance that makes chili peppers blistering hot.
The scientists "restored" the chemical to one rear foot of each tested rat and exposed them to capsaicin. They would pull that foot up and lick it, showing they felt pain, but only in that foot. There's hope that this research could lead to better treatment for humans who suffer with severe pain.
Those are only a few of the areas that scientists are probing with the help of a blind, hairless, wrinkled animal that just may lead us to a better and much longer life.