Can we hibernate? This is a question we have been asking since the dawn of science fiction genre. As hibernation is a key factor for us to one day engage in long space voyages exploring the stretches of outer space.
Scientists are now telling us that it is possible for us to hibernate. Hibernation is usually performed by animals that are adapted to live in extreme cold. These animals achieve hibernation by reducing their core temperature due to which their body metabolism drops. This helps them survive longs winters effectively by lying dormant.
For warm-blooded animals such as primates, most of the energy they consume goes towards maintaining their body temperature. Our body temperatures operate around a fixed temperature of 37-degree Celcius. The only time our temperature comes down a little bit is when we are sleeping. All other fluctuations point out to problems such as fever and hypothermia.
Whenever we are exposed to colder conditions our body starts shivering immediately to increase the body temperature. Because of all these things, it is a wide held belief that we cannot go into hibernation or torpor. Kelly Drew, a professor at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology, thinks the otherwise.
She explains that there’s no single “hibernation molecule” or organ that humans lack. In fact advances in modern sciences have led so far that torpor can be induced by doctors in extreme circumstances. Emergency patients who have suffered cardiac arrest are made to undergo a cooling process- allowing the brain and other organs to survive longer while deprived of blood.
NASA is actively interested in using this approach for space travels if it’s possible. Starting from 2014, NASA has funded research on long-term hibernation as a way to facilitate long-term space travel. John Bradford, an aerospace engineer who worked with the agency to develop a human-hibernation protocol says, “The obvious benefit is needing less food.”
The entire concept comes with a plethora of challenges as well. If we are successful in creating a safe hibernation in human beings there is still a need for nutrient intake as we don’t have any food reserves in our body. Bradford says the biggest challenge would be dropping people’s temperatures without causing them to shiver and burn up energy. Hospitals deal with this problem by giving the patients sedatives. But for astronauts taking sedatives that lasts for weeks while on a mission doesn’t sound like a safe thing to do.
The safest way to hibernation would be a drug that can bring down our core temperatures safely. A tremendous amount of research is going in that direction. When successful we will be one step closer to our dream of space travel.