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Is Hibernation The Secret To Human Longevity?

Posted on 31 March 2021

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Humans don’t hibernate. But could they?

Certain animals enter a state of hibernation to help them survive cold, stressful conditions over the winter. Hibernation is often described as a form of sleep, though this isn’t always completely accurate – many animals don’t actually sleep all winter, but rather slow down their metabolism to conserve energy. We may be able to learn some important lessons from the metabolic adaptations that occur in these species. When humans are bedridden for a period of months, we suffer significant health deterioration such as the weakening of our muscles, including the heart. Hibernating animals, on the other hand, have evolved ways of conserving most of their muscle mass during periods of rest, are able to survive extremes of temperature that would otherwise be fatal, and can enhance the repair of their DNA.

Could we perhaps induce some of these metabolic changes in humans in order to slow aspects of the ageing process, such as muscle and bone deterioration? Could we even make humans fully hibernate in order to allow for things like long distance space travel? The idea might not be quite as crazy as it sounds.

Scientists working on real-life 'hibernation' tech to send future colonists  to Mars - Blastr
Though it may be science fiction for now, we are probably going to need some form of hibernation technology if we wish to visit more distant planets in our solar system.
Image Source

The scientific consensus is that the ability to hibernate arose in a mammalian ancestor around 65 million years ago, and that this ancestor is common to most mammals today. That means that all of the genes necessary for hibernation are likely to be present within the human genome – we’re just not using them in the same way as hibernators. We know of one primate – the lemur – that hibernates for long periods. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, by understanding which genes are activated during the hibernation process, we might be able to target those same genes in humans for medical purposes, or to one day regain this ancient ability that we have lost.

Lemurs are our closest hibernating relative.
Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center

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    Seasonal and regional differences in gene expression in the brain of a hibernating mammal:

    Human powers of hibernation may be dormant in genetic code:

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