Ice and a slice
May 9, 2014 6:27 AM   Subscribe

It may not get us to the stars - or Jupiter - just yet, but human interest in animal hibernation has never been higher. NASA's investigations, themselves in deep freeze for two decades, have woken up. Most work, though, focuses on the obvious use, that of slowing down the process of dying in trauma victims to give doctors more time to work. But more, much more, now seems possible.

“When is your comrade dead?” asks Professor Rob Henning with a grin, quoting an Army handbook he received as one of the Netherlands’ last draft of conscripts. “One: Is he rotting? Two: Is his head more than twenty centimetres from his body?”

But the range and potential of complex hibernation mechanisms being uncovered are surprising:

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. During hibernation, the microbiome – the community of bacteria living in an animal’s digestive tract – is battered by cold and the sudden lack of food. Hibernators’ lungs become covered with a thick deposit of mucus and collagen like those seen in people with asthma, and their brains show changes that resemble those of early-stage Alzheimer’s. 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.
posted by Devonian (5 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting perhaps for medical use, but hibernation does nothing to help with the real problem with manned deep space travel: radiation exposure.
posted by Poldo at 6:40 AM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

But wouldn't hibernation make radiation shielding for long-term voyages much more realistic, as you would only have to heavily shield a much smaller part of the spacecraft? (The "pods" themselves or wherever you're housing your passengers).

Thus reducing weight and cost?
posted by mayonnaises at 8:27 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Awesome stuff, hope they get it working.
posted by marienbad at 9:44 AM on May 9, 2014

I don't want to make this all about radiation, but the shielding situation is more complex. For example the material you make the shield out of must not amplify the radiation when it itself is irradiated, which is why they are now looking at making ships out of plastic and not aluminum. Even then there is some high energy cosmic radiation that cannot be stopped by (a reasonable amount of) any known shielding material. Hibernation doesn't really help.
posted by Poldo at 10:03 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is fascinating. Good post, Devonian.
posted by homunculus at 8:41 PM on May 10, 2014

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