Science fiction stories and films have long extolled the benefits that suspended animation might provide – you know, like taking a long trip to Mars, or if you’re in a Sylvester Stallone flick, putting criminals like Wesley Snipes on ice (see: the 1993 film classic, “Demolition Man”). Of course, while freezing violent criminals is hopefully a flight of fancy, cooling down bodies to extremely low temperatures could actually facilitate long-distance space travel. In essence, they would be in a state of suspended animation while they hurled through the cosmos. But these are not the only benefits human hibernation might offer. And recent medical research is exploring the possibilities.
Research currently being conducted involves cooling trauma patients to temperatures as low as 10 degrees Celsius. In doing so, patients who would otherwise not survive might be able to have life-saving surgery while minimizing brain damage thereafter. But does the same technology have other advantages? And could imposing a cold nap on astronauts allow for prolonged space travel? There are no easy answers to these questions. But there is interest among researchers in many fields in whether suspended animation in humans might be feasible.
What Is Suspended Animation?
In an effort to better understand how humans might exist in suspended animation, there is a need to clarify terms. We all appreciate that many animals experience winter hibernation. In this state, the animal’s metabolic state slows tremendously and they enter into a sleep-like state. Hibernation thus requires fewer calories as heart rate and glucose metabolism dramatically slows. But the animal’s brain regulates this in deeper portions of its nervous system. And this phenomenon may hold the key for future suspended animation in humans.
In contrast, a cold nap refers to the extreme cooling of the body. By cooling the human body to extreme temperatures, heart rate stops and brain metabolism is minimal. Unlike hibernation, however, a cold nap creates this effect via temperature rather than through direct brain mechanisms. Likewise, space scientists are exploring another state called torpor. Torpor also represents a state of remarkably slow metabolism, but this is usually induced by drugs with the aid of low temperatures. And scientists are still striving to appreciate the differences each of these states offer.
Suspended Animation in Space – The Good and the Bad
Significant interest has centered on human hibernation and suspended animation when it comes to space travel. Space travel to Mars and other anticipated space journeys demand such considerations. A trip to Mars may take 180 days, and there is a risk of exposure of astronauts to significant radiation in the process. But suspended animation or a state of torpor could help the situation. For one, caloric needs would be less. Likewise, it is possible to use hibernation pods, which saves space and also allows insulation from radiation exposure. These benefits are notable when scientists are trying to figure out how to manage such a long journey.
However, risks are involved when it comes to suspended animation in space. For one, a loss of gravity in such states shows an increase in the risk of some medical problems. These problems include blood clots, bleeding, infection, and even liver damage. In addition, the long-term effects of human hibernation are difficult to predict. These could include mood disturbances such as depression as well as cognitive impairment. For these reasons, experts pursue hibernation studies in animals to gain additional insights.
Insights from Medical Research
For two decades, cardiothoracic surgeons have utilized a variant of a cold nap when performing specific heart surgeries. By inducing hypothermia in patients, their brain metabolism and heart rate slow down. This has been associated with reduced risks of brain injury during a time when oxygen and circulation levels may be low. Now, another major U.S. study is ongoing to explore this to a greater extent inducing a cold nap. Termed emergency preservation and resuscitation (EPR), researchers drop patients’ core temperature to as low 10 degrees Celsius or lower. In doing so, they can buy up to an hour’s worth of time for additional life-saving measures.
A current trial involves roughly 20 patients, most of whom will be severe trauma patients with little chance of survival. During EPR, they will have their blood circulation replaced with ice-cold saline solutions to induce the cold nap. Researchers will then compare the outcomes of those in the cold nap to similar patients receiving standard care. If the results prove successful, then this could have major ramifications for not only medicine but other areas as well.
The Potential, The Uses
The immediate potential for suspended animation certainly relates to healthcare and space travel. But looking ahead, a number of other uses might be possible. For example, suppose one has an illness for which a cure currently does not exist. Potentially, one could be induced into a state of suspended animation during the development of a cure. These same techniques might also be used to delay aging effects (for more Bold stories on anti-aging and longevity, click here!). Or mass populations could be induced into a cold nap in order to survive environments where food supplies are lacking. These seem impossible based on today’s insights and technologies. But science fiction and futuristic ideas make up these dreams. For now, suspended animation offers the greatest potential in space and medicine. But this may indeed be a stepping stone for much more later.