Hibernation is considered a key to long-term survival during hazardous conditions and that’s exactly what animals do for months together. Long duration space travel is something that involves spending hundreds of days in confined space that could lead to a range of issues including mental stress, increased anxiety, and other psychological challenges that aren’t known yet.
Scientists at the European Space Agency now believe that hibernation in humans could be achieved by taking cues from animal hibernators and could be put to use in long-duration space flights. Using medical therapies including therapeutic hypothermia scientists believe that hibernation can be induced and humans.
Trials are being conducted to see if there is a way to lower the body temperature of people, keep them in a sleep-like state for days or weeks and then revive them with no ill effects, something that astronauts may have to do to travel deep into space.
“We see the science has advanced enough to put some of the science fiction into the realm of science reality,” says Leopold Summerer, head of advanced concepts team of the European Space Agency, one of the operators of the International Space Station in a statement to the Washington Post.
Summerer cautioned that this doesn’t mean that they will start hibernating astronauts anytime soon, but they are learning from nature and trying to understand from animal hibernators as to how some of the things that happen to animals during hibernation, such as preventing bone loss or preventing muscle loss.
“This is already something that would be a great benefit for long-distance space flight”, Summerer said. The ESA scientist added that a panel of European biomedical researchers, biologists and neuroscientists is expected to deliver their recommendations on human hibernation research and funding.
NASA has already funded a preliminary study wherein researchers investigated the idea of putting astronauts into a state of torpor, or hibernation, for weeks at a time. The study identified some of the potential benefits including cut in the food and water required on their spacecraft, a reduction in waste products, smaller living quarters and less space needed for supplies, exercise and entertainment.
The study also said that putting the crew to sleep might minimize their psychological challenges. The idea, however, didn’t make it to a second round of funding. John Bradford, head of the company that proposed the human hibernation, says he’s hoping to get funding elsewhere.
The US space agency has revealed that it will be using the year-long stay that astronaut Scott Kelly just started at the International Space Station and combine it with medical monitoring of his earthbound twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly and collect clues about protecting humans who leave Earth’s orbit for months or years at a time.
NASA’s tests do not involve hibernation research, but its research will help enable space agencies across the globe to plan for future space flights and possibly a manned space flight to Mars.
However, biologists and other researchers aren’t going to sit around and await results of NASA’s tests and many have already started working on neurological and biochemical pathways of hibernating animals as the Arctic ground squirrel which are known to set their internal body temperature at 0 C — the freezing point — during the winter.
“We think that if we understand how they do it, we can replicate it in humans,” said Kelly Drew, a biochemist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Drew along with her colleagues at university’s Institute of Arctic Biology claim that they have possibly found a molecule that does the job of making sure that the squirrel gets so cold without dying – the A1 adenosine receptor.
Though the researchers have found the potential molecule that lets the animal get cold, they are yet to found the triggers that activate it.
“We don’t know what the natural signal is for torpor,” she said. “We don’t know where the signal occurs in the brain — it could be in the brain stem or the hypothalamus.”
Drew said that they will now be learning how to safely use drugs that stimulate the A1 adenosine receptor and then induce animals that do not normally hibernate to enter and stay in a state of torpor for two to three weeks at a time.