Scientists Are Studying Human Hibernation, and It Would Be Great If They Could Hurry Up, Please

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Photo: 20th Century Fox

This feels like a case of too little, too late: As Smithsonian reported earlier this week, scientists are now studying whether or not humans will ever be able to join the ranks of bears, groundhogs, and other animals who hibernate. Technically, this line of research is geared toward astronauts who spend years at a time in space, but it’s knowledge that would have been nice to have around November 9 or so.

Particularly frustrating for both scientists — and the rest of us who have to stay awake through the next several years — is the fact that researchers still don’t know much about animal hibernation at all. Why some species can do it and others can’t, the role of gene expression, how the metabolism slows down so dramatically and then speeds back up again — all are still questions that have yet to be fully answered. Plus, as hibernation researcher Kelly Drew, a neuropharmacologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Smithsonian, there are certain bodily functions to contend with even during a lengthy time-out from consciousness:

Hibernation isn’t simply a matter of turning the knob on your metabolism; it involves a host of other related adapations. Foremost among these is waste management. Animals that hibernate are able to essentially halt their urination and defecation during hibernation, Drew says, sometimes through a process of reabsorption to preserve nutrients. Unfortunately, humans can’t do this, though Drew has heard of proposals such as using rectal catheters.

And even if we figure out the poo problem, there are other challenges. Body temperatures below 37 degree Fahrenheit tend to disrupt the human digestive tract and may cause pain. Cold temperatures can also suppress the immune system, making people more vulnerable to infections. It may turn out that humans simply weren’t meant for hibernation.

That doesn’t mean you can’t hold out hope, though. Four years is plenty of time for a breakthrough.

Scientists Think Humans May One Day Be Able to Hibernate