Humans ‘could learn to hibernate’ – revolutionising surgery and space travel

Humans could learn to hibernate like our ancestors in a bid to revolutionise surgery and even establish better space travel, according to experts.

Hibernation means more than just a nice long sleep. As NASA looks to longer interplanetary and perhaps one day interstellar voyages, being able to sleep through months or even years of deep space travel would not only cut down on boredom, it would be a great way to conserve resources.

And according to Kelly Drew, a scientist at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology, it's "very possible that humans could hibernate" in the near future – which could be a very useful option.

Being able to induce hibernation would be a powerful tool for doctors.

Putting a patient to sleep for extended periods would open the door to a wider range of treatments.

And of course there’s always the possibility of putting a patient with a dangerous condition to sleep until new treatment options emerge.

At the University of Maryland, surgeon Samuel Tisherman is already successfully testing a rapid-cooling technique to put accident victims into a type of suspended animation that he calls “emergency preservation and resuscitation”.

He told New Scientist: “I want to make clear that we’re not trying to send people off to Saturn.”

“We’re trying to buy ourselves more time to save lives.”

But human hibernation is not necessarily as futuristic as Sci-Fi movies might have you believe.

According to the British Medical Journal, Russian peasants in the late 1800s were routinely shutting down their bodies and living on a few scraps of bread and water during the punishing Siberian winters.

“This custom has existed among them from time immemorial,” says an article published in the prestigious medical periodical in 1900.

It adds: “At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down…and quietly goes to sleep.”

Going further back, a team led by paleoanthropologist Juan-Luis Arsuaga has made some intriguing discoveries in a cave called Sima de los Huesos – the pit of bones – at Atapuerca, near Burgos in northern Spain.

While the researchers admit the idea “may sound like science fiction” they have found that the bones of early humans that lived some 400,000 years ago show signs of season-long shutdowns that may have been some form of hibernation.

While northern Spain might not have been as hostile an environment as northern Canada, even during an Ice Age, Arsuaga explains that the cold dry conditions of the time “could not have provided enough fat-rich food for the people of Sima during the harsh winter… making them resort to cave hibernation”.

Now scientists may have taken the first early steps towards bringing hibernation back.

Research scientist Marina Blanco has taught some of mankind’s distant relatives who to hibernate again, decades after they lost the habit through living in a nice warm zoo.

By carefully controlling the listing and temperature of the dwarf lemur enclosure at Duke Lemur Centre in Durham, North Carolina she triggered hibernation in creatures that hadn’t done so in generations.

The little creatures, despite being warm-blooded primates just like us, can reduce their body temperature and slow their metabolisms until their bodies need just 2% of the energy they’d require normally.

Apart from space travel and surgery, there might be another hidden bonus to hibernation. Dwarf lemurs live for far longer than close relatives that don’t hibernate.

Marina Blanco speculates that an occasional shutdown could lead to a greatly increased lifespan.

"But until now, if you wanted to study hibernation in these primates, you needed to go to Madagascar to find them in the act," she said. "Now we can study hibernation here and do more close monitoring.”

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