As the cold of winter settles over the northern hemisphere, many animals retreat into an alternative state of being called “hibernation.”
The most common animal that comes to mind when people think of hibernation is a bear, but this natural phenomenon can actually be observed in dozens of different animals, including bumblebees, bats, turtles, snakes, and squirrels.
One animal not included in this list is humans, but scientists are now wondering if that could one day change.
Many people might joke about how they want to hibernate for winter. It sounds nice, just curling up in a warm bed and not getting up until the spring. However, this isn’t really what hibernation is.
Hibernation is a state somewhere between being awake and being asleep. The purpose of it is to conserve energy, and the effects are far more extreme than taking a simple nap.
If you were hibernating, it would be unlikely that the experience would be warm and cozy because hibernation typically involves an animal’s body temperature dropping dramatically—sometimes even past the point of freezing.
In addition to lowering body temperature, an animal’s heartbeat will also slow along with its breathing. Some animals even stop breathing for periods of an hour or more.
Even though hibernating animals might appear to be asleep, the truth is that hibernation is distinctly different from sleeping. In fact, scientists have observed that animals who hibernate will come out of their state of hibernation at regular intervals just to sleep.
This seems to indicate that animals are not getting the restful benefits associated with sleeping during their periods of hibernation. In fact, they may actually need to recover by getting sleep immediately after exiting a period of hibernation.
Even though the idea of humans entering this alternate state of being seems far-fetched, there are many scientists devoted to exploring the possibilities associated with hibernation.
It turns out that our ancient ancestors may have had the ability to hibernate. One reason scientists are curious about the ability of ancient humans to hibernate is that if you look at the evolutionary tree of mammals that hibernate, it seems likely all mammals share a common ancestor that was a hibernator.
Sure, on Earth, there is little need for humans to hibernate. We have the ability to create shelter and clothing while also maintaining food supplies through the winter months. However, one domain that hibernation could be helpful for is space travel.
Currently, a journey to Mars would take around 8 months—and that’s the closest planet to us. Exploration by humans beyond that point would take years of transport.
Many scientists working to make extensive space exploration possible are focused on the potential benefits associated with inducing hibernation during space travel. The ability to put astronauts into a state of hibernation would reduce the number of resources needed to sustain their health during the journey. It could also make the long transport time less psychologically exhausting.
When we think of the reasons that animals hibernate, two main things come to mind: surviving in the extreme cold and surviving food shortages (which, for many animals, happens every year in the wintertime). It seems that hibernation might have a use beyond fighting these external challenges, though.
Hibernation can help fight medical conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and heart attack. If humans can be put into a state of hibernation, it could also open up new possibilities regarding the type of operations that can be done. In this sense, the science around hibernation could significantly impact healthcare if it can develop further.
While hibernation is not something you will be able to achieve on your own, it is possible that scientists will find a way to induce hibernation at some point in our lifetime.
Currently, certain medical practices already employ many of the basic principles behind hibernation. For example, during cardiac surgery, it is common to employ controlled hypothermia and metabolism in order to protect the body during the operation.
This ability to induce a hibernation-like state depends heavily on the use of drugs. We have not found a way to “naturally” induce hibernation, something that animals who hibernate can do. If we want to improve our ability to use hibernation for the benefit of humans, more research needs to be done on how animals can naturally tap into their body’s system of hibernation. We also will need to explore risks associated with inducing hibernation, such as potential memory loss.
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