Hibernation in… Space: What would it mean for astronauts?

By | May 10, 2023

One space The journey to the planet Mars would be extremely long… So should the astronauts go into a kind of “hibernation” until the journey is complete? This scenario is examined in a BBC Future article, noting that such a thing would also have certain health benefits.

Let’s say you are an astronaut in the year 2039 and you are heading to Mars. The trip lasts eight months but you are only in the third and your body receives an “attack” of radiation from outer space. Also, in zero gravity, there is a risk that the bones and muscles will atrophy.

But perhaps you should not worry, since you are about to enter a chamber that will act as a “cocoon” in which you can sleep peacefully until you reach your destination.

This is something we have seen several times in science fiction stories and today, some scientists believe that one day it will be possible to put humans into hibernation.

“There is uncertainty about how people would react if they stopped seeing Earth as a nearby planet outside a window and instead saw only darkness,” says Leopold Schumerer, head of the European Space Agency teams working on the new technologies for space. “The psychological stress it could cause remains unknown.”

health benefits

However, there could also be health benefits for astronauts from such prolonged sleep. Without gravity, bones and muscles atrophy. Even on the International Space Station, where there is state-of-the-art exercise equipment, astronauts lose up to 20% of their muscle mass. This would be an even bigger problem on Mars-bound missions, as there would be no help or support of any kind for the astronauts once they reached the Red Planet.

A long sleep, however, could protect them from some dangers. Let’s take animals for example. Those who hibernate enter a special state of torpor, where their metabolism slows and their heart rate, breathing, and body temperature drop. Even cells stop dividing and die.

This state, different from sleep, allows animals to conserve energy reserves in times of food scarcity. Hibernation, then, also appears to protect against some ill effects of space travel.

For example, squirrels have shown resistance to high levels of radiation during hibernation, possibly because during hibernation the cells reproduce at much lower rates and are therefore less susceptible to the negative effects of radiation.

Will the “dream” come true?

But aside from the benefits, would that scenario be realistic for astronauts? May be. Studies have shown that scientists can use drugs that induce prolonged torpor in some animals, such as rats that do not normally hibernate. These drugs affect an area of ​​the brain called the hypothalamus, which regulates body temperature and heart rate.

A drop in body temperature could also lead to such a condition. A procedure known as “therapeutic hypothermia” is already being used in some hospitals for patients who have suffered cardiac arrest or severe brain injury.

Lowering body temperature to 32 to 34 degrees Celsius is believed to limit damage to the brain or other vital organs.

However, if the scenario of humans going into hibernation becomes a reality, it is vital to better understand how the brain and body can go into such a state.

“As far as we know, there is nothing special in homo sapiens that prevents it from going into hibernation, and I think the possibility is there, we just have to ‘unlock’ it,” emphasizes Vladislav Vyazovsky, a professor at the University. from Oxford.

“For me, the real question is not whether or not we can hibernate, but how… How do the neurons in the hypothalamus know that it is time to do so? Who tells them? This is the real problem, ”she emphasizes.

Source: BBC Future

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