Friday, December 21, 2007

The Science of Shivering

Research reveals the body's wiring for sensing, responding to cold is more complex than one might think

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University's Neurological Sciences Institute have uncovered the system that tells the body when to perform one of its most basic defenses against the cold: shivering. The scientists have discovered the brain's wiring system, which takes temperature information from the skin and determines when a person should start shivering. Their findings are published in the advance online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"Shivering, which is actually heat production in skeletal muscles, requires quite a bit of energy and is usually the last strategy the body uses to maintain its internal temperature to survive in a severe cold environment. Other strategies to defend against the cold, such as reducing heat loss to the environment by restricting blood flow to the skin, also appear to be controlled by the sensory mechanism that we found," explained Kazuhiro Nakamura, Ph.D., an OHSU Fellow for Research Abroad. "One fascinating aspect of this study is that it shows the sensory pathway for shivering, which can be thought of as brain wiring, is parallel to but not the same as the sensory pathway for conscious cold detection. In other words, your body is both consciously and subconsciously detecting the cold at the same time using two different but related sensory systems."

Shivering is one of the many automatic and subconscious regulatory body functions, often called homeostatic functions, that the brain regulates. Other examples include the adjustment of breathing rates, blood pressure, heart rate and weight regulation. Throughout the day, all of these important functions take place in the body without conscious thought. Without these important functions, humans and other animals could not survive.

"There are conditions, such as hypothermia and hyperthermia, in which thermal sensory pathways come into play and knowledge of the brain's wiring can provide important clues to locating dysfunction in patients with abnormal thermal sensation. In addition, our ability to sense and respond to temperature changes degrades as we age," explained Morrison.

from a news release of Oregon Health & Science University , Dec 17, 2007
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