Adventurous as they were, these early experiments did not progress beyond the animal stage, and astronauts were never frozen and revived with hot spoons. The idea of transforming people into inanimate bars of flesh for long-distance space travel remained in the realm of science fiction. Laboratory equipment at University Medical Centre Groningen. In , the British Medical Journal published an account of Russian peasants who, the author claimed, were able to hibernate. Waking once a day to wash some hard bread down with water, the family took it in turns to watch the fire, only rousing themselves fully once spring had broken.
No trace of the sleepy peasants of Pskov has ever emerged since, but the fantasy of human hibernation persists, and very occasionally, something that looks very similar to it crosses into reality. When rescuers finally arrived, the Swedish radiologist had been submerged for 80 minutes, and her heart and breathing had stopped.
By all accounts she appeared to have drowned. She went on to recover almost fully from her cold brush with death. Somehow the cold had preserved her. As far back as the Napoleonic era, medics noted that wounded infantrymen left out in the cold had better survival rates than the wounded officers kept close to the fire in warmed tents. Therapeutic hypothermia is now commonly used in hospitals to reduce injury in a wide variety of situations, from surgery to helping infants recuperate following difficult births.
Lowering your body temperature slows your metabolic activity, about 5—7 per cent for every degree dropped. This in turn reduces the rate at which you consume essential nutrients such as oxygen. Tissues that might become starved of oxygen due to blood loss or cardiac arrest are thus protected.
In theory, if we were to keep reducing your temperature, eventually your biological processes would come to a standstill. You would exist in a state of suspended animation. All it would take would be a little heat to set you in motion again. Hypothermia is dangerous. Your body wants to be warm and will fight to remain that way. This requires great effort. Your body must perform countless constant adjustments to balance heat production with heat lost to the environment, working to keep your temperature within a narrow band.
If it drops too low, your blood is shunted away from the exposed skin and gathers in your central torso while you shiver and huddle under blankets. The effects of more severe cold are disastrous. And even if you survive hypothermia, warming you up again can cause extensive kidney damage. There are, however, certain species of animal that can endure far greater spells of cold.
The Arctic ground squirrel normally maintains a body temperature similar to our own. How animals survive these states is of great interest to anyone hoping to unlock the secrets of suspended animation for humans.
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A white laboratory rat hibernating on ice. Two: Is his head more than twenty centimetres from his body? Many animals can slow their metabolism to enter low-energy states: insects, amphibians, mammals, birds and fish. In short periods, this condition — characterised by reduced body temperature and inactivity — is known as torpor.
By stringing together many of these short sessions of torpor, animals can enter the long-term dormancy we call hibernation. With this technique, small animals such as mice, hamsters and bats can last out the cold famines of winter huddled away, conserving energy. Blood loss is the major cause of death during surgery, but in their hypothermic state, hibernators can survive far worse injuries than they can at normal body temperatures.
The Big Sleep
This is partly because tissues are protected at low metabolic rates, and partly because the heart is pumping blood at a fraction of the rate it usually does. Although it resembles a very long lie-in, hibernating is not a simple matter of sleeping through the cold. To endure these sufferings, the animals that practise it have developed a suite of adaptations to protect mind and body.
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Before a long hibernation, animals eat their way into obesity, essentially becoming type 2 diabetic. Unlike in humans, this does not result in the thickening of artery walls that leads to heart disease. Some species will stop eating two or three weeks before hibernation, suddenly resistant to the pangs of hunger even while maintaining their regular level of activity.
While a human can lie in bed for a week before muscles begin to atrophy and blood clots form, hibernators will endure months without moving. Some species lose memory during hibernation. Most surprising of all, some show symptoms of sleep deprivation when they finally wake. And yet, hibernators are able to counter all of these issues to bounce back in spring, often without any long-term ill effects. A white laboratory rat lying on its back. One of these buildings is the animal laboratory. A tangle of fine tubes and wires surrounds the animal, delivering life-preserving fluids and carrying away precious data.
Clicking like a metronome, a ventilator delivers steady breaths to the anaesthetised rodent. As a non-hibernator like us, the rat cannot survive deep hypothermia without medical assistance.
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As well as inducing hibernation in hamsters a process that takes weeks of gradual adjustment in climate-controlled rooms to mimic the onset of winter , the UMCG team also induce forced hypothermia states like that of our rat, chilling the animals rapidly until they fall into a state of metabolic suspension.
Today, de Vrij is searching for platelets, which are essential for blood clotting to prevent bleeding. Hibernating animals avoid getting blood clots despite their lack of activity, an ability that comes down partly to a curious change in the hypothermic body: as they cool, platelets disappear from the blood. Nobody yet knows where they go, but their prompt reappearance on rewarming has de Vrij convinced that they are preserved somewhere in the body, rather than being absorbed and later resynthesised.
Surprisingly, this change also happens even in non-hibernators, including rats and — occasionally — human victims of hypothermia. There are even hints that we humans might, to some extent, retain some of these abilities. For a long time, there was no evidence that primates could hibernate. But in , a species of Madagascan lemur was shown to practise regular bouts of torpor. As their body temperature drops, hibernators also remove the lymphocytes white blood cells from their blood and store them in the lymph nodes.
And within 90 minutes of awakening, these reappear. This damping down of the immune system prevents a general inflammation in the body during rewarming — the very thing that would cause humans and other non-hibernators to suffer kidney damage. The fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome, currently wiping out bat colonies in the USA, takes advantage of this vulnerability, infecting the bats while they are dormant.
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