Have you ever thought what would happen if humans could hibernate just like machines? Imagine how easy a long 8-month journey to Mars would become if humans could sleep through it. Wouldn’t it be easier on resources? Off course yes. And therefore, several space agencies, including the NASA are trying to figure out if humans can hibernate and if yes what would be the risks the process will involve and more importantly what would it take? When we think of hibernation, bears are the first thing that crosses our mind. During the winters, Bears’ vital signs change accordingly and spend the season in a state of reduced metabolism. In the winters the food is scarce, their heart rate, body temperature drops, energy consumption and even breathing decrease to conserve the energy required to survive. This is known as torpor - a state of physical and mental inactivity.
Several other animals, as well as some mammals, go to torpor but why not humans?
One reason could be that we never needed to. Being the most intelligent living being on earth, humans adapt to a different atmosphere in different ways. In extreme winters, they change their clothes and start wearing wool and leather and build igloos. The less intelligent bears could not adapt to the conditions, thus, turned to torpor but we humans developed our own “climate hacks” and never needed hibernation.
With the kind of technology today, we are trying to understand the process of hibernation but still don’t know much about torpor. The biggest risk that researchers face is the possible damage to our brain due to the hibernation. So far, we could not determine what would be the effects of hibernation to a human brain.
According to the scans of animal brains taken during the torpor, it was found out that their brains were in the same condition when sleep deprived. And it is very hard to find out if human brains would also be in the same state during the hibernation. Lack of oxygen, nutrients, and sleep in torpor may damage the human brain to an unrepairable extent. Also, the process reorganises synaptic connections responsible for creating memories in our brain. With reduced synaptic connections when during the process of torpor, it is quite possible that humans may lose memories before they were put in hibernation. Imagine if someone wakes up after one of two years of hibernation and forgets a large chunk of memories associated with his or her family members and loved ones, it could possibly result in some serious phycological issues. Another thing, how would we go to the washroom? We know some animals reabsorb their waste to absorb nutrients, but we humans can’t do this.
How far have we reached to human hibernation?
When it comes to human hibernation, the closest we have reached is the therapeutic hypothermia – a medical process also known as Targeted temperature management. The process is used to treat the patients who don’t regain consciousness after the return of spontaneous circulation following a cardiac arrest. In this process, the body temperature of a human being is reduced or maintained to a specific level for a specific duration. The longest duration therapeutic hypothermia is tested is two weeks. But a body temperature lower than 2.7 degree Celsius can cause several complications including weaker digestion and immune system.
So, hibernation in humans can cause brain damage, memory loss, weaker immune system and indigestion. Also, the person will lose important time of his life and his memories about his family and loved ones.