They’re strange, bald, wrinkled little creatures that live deep underground in cramped colonies of up to 300 members, with very little air to go around. While any other mammal would die or suffer brain damage in this environment, naked mole rats flourish — and this unique ability may help scientists treat human victims of stroke, drowning and heart attacks.

Adult naked mole rat brain tissue can withstand extreme oxygen deprivation for more than 30 minutes at a time, according John Larson and Thomas Park, two researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

"In the most extreme cases, naked mole rat neurons maintain function more than six times longer than mouse neurons after the onset of oxygen deprivation," said Larson.

Native to East Africa, naked mole rats have proven to hold tantalizing clues to treating a number of human health problems. With a life span of up to 30 years and complete immunity to disease, these blind rodents are the focus of scientific research on aging and cancer.

The womb is a low-oxygen environment for all mammal fetuses, and while human babies retain the ability to resist brain damage from oxygen deprivation into early childhood, naked mole rats have it for life.

The researchers believe that this ability is an evolutionary adaptation to the rats’ choice of living quarters.

"The trick now will be to learn how naked mole rats have been able to retain infant-like brain protection from low oxygen, so we can use this information to help people who experience temporary loss of oxygen to the brain in situations like heart attacks, stroke or drowning," said Park.