Scientists have been able to induce a torpor state in mice and rats using ultrasound, bringing them a step closer to finding a way to induce suspended animation in humans.
They are hoping that this will one day reduce the energy consumption and cost of space travel.
The latest study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Metabolism, found researchers were able to induce torpor in mice and in rats using ultrasonic waves targeting a precise part of the animals’ brains.
“If this technology is successfully demonstrated in human beings, it holds great potential in medical applications. This includes stroke and heart attack conditions that are life-threatening.
“We can imagine astronauts wearing helmets that target the hypothalamus to create a torpor state”, she explained.
Tiny helmets zap the rodents’ brains
Torpor is a state of suspended animation whereby animals may look like they are going to sleep, but they are actually drastically reducing their metabolic activity, usually in response to extremely adverse conditions.
Scientists had previously found that torpor can be triggered by injecting a chemical into a precise part of the brain that controls the central nervous system. But Chen and colleagues were interested to see if there was a non-invasive way to induce that state, without physically breaching the skull.
Mice, rats and other rodents were equipped with helmets that sent ultrasonic wave to their brains. The scientists observed that these waves were effectively able to push the rodents into a state of torpor.
For about an hour after the ultrasound pulse, the mice’s body temperatures and metabolism dropped, a state similar to torpor seen in nature. The mice’s average body temperatures dropped by up to 6. 25 degrees Fahrenheit (3. 5 degrees Celsius) and their heart rate and oxygen usage dropped as well.
The rats’ body temperatures also dropped, though to a lesser level, up to 3. 57 F (2 C).
The fact that this state was triggered in rats is encouraging, as these rodents “do not naturally enter torpor, suggesting the possibility that similar effects could be induced in humans,” the scientists said in the study.
This technology could one day be used to make space travel more economical
Space agencies are keeping a close eye on this type of research. If they were able to crack the science of suspended animation, it could make space travel safer and cheaper, especially for long-haul flights like the 16-month-long round trip to Mars.
A single astronaut eats about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of food and water a week, but their consumption could drop by 75% in suspended animation, per the BBC. Astronauts would also need much less space to roam around, so the rocket wouldn’t need crew quarters.
Taken together, these cuts could save several tons of mass, a crucial saving when each pound adds weight to an already hefty rocket, ESA found in a 2019 study.
Inducing a hibernation-like state also has health benefits. Studies suggest astronauts would be at lesser risk of substantial muscle and bone density loss and protected from the worst effects of exposure to cosmic radiation. It could also protect the astronauts’ mental health, as nobody knows what happens to human minds after being away from Earth for that long.
Hibernation in space would be “nowhere near as extreme as what we see in the movies,” John Bradford, president and CTO of SpaceWorks Enterprises, previously told CNET. Spaceworks received several funding rounds from NASA in 2016 to develop a space hibernation concept.
For Spaceworks, astronauts would be induced into torpor for 14 days at a time and woken for three or four days. So, an astronaut would be on duty to supervise the proceedings.
Scientists are getting closer, but aren’t quite there
The rapid progress in the basic science to support this innovation is encouraging.
One avenue to induce suspended animation is to cool the body down dramatically. In fact, surgeons are already using deep hypothermia — cooling the body temperature to under 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 celsius) — to stop the blood during particularly tricky cardiac surgeries, though this should be done for more than 20 to 30 minutes.
Other studies, like this recent one, suggest hacking the brain’s dormant torpor mechanism to induce this state. Previous studies had suggested torpor could be induced with drugs, but the advantage of the approach in this recent study, is that it is noninvasive, precise, and safe, scientists said in the study.
“As far as we know, there is nothing unique about homo sapiens that would prevent our species from hibernating, and I believe the capacity is there but it needs to be unlocked,” Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, professor of sleep physiology at the University of Oxford, told the BBC.
“To me, the real question is not whether we can hibernate, but how… How do neurons in the hypothalamus ‘know’ that it is time to hibernate? Who is it that tells these neurons? This is the real question,” he said.
Nevertheless, most of the research into long-ranging suspended animation is still only being done on animals, and we’re likely still a long way away from testing it on humans.
“Further research is still required to determine the safety and feasibility of this approach in humans,” Chen told Live Science.