A key component of space travel in science fiction has taken a major step to becoming reality with an experiment that has successfully induced suspended hibernation in lab rodents. Instead of using potentially dangerous methods such as chemically-induced sleep or freezing the subjects, the technique involved uses ultrasound to lull the body into a lowered metabolic state, and if this proves to be viable for use on humans, could revolutionize travel to other planets such as Venus and Mars.

Led by Washington University associate professor Hong Chen, the research team conducted their experiments on mice and rats, animals that do not naturally hibernate, like bears or groundhogs. After identifying a specific group of neurons deep in the hypothalamus called the preoptic area that appeared to be involved in regulating metabolism and body temperature during states of hibernation, they built tiny helmets for the mice that would activate the targeted neurons using ultrasound.

The effect caused the mice’s heart rates to lower by 47 percent and their body temperature to drop 3°C (5.4°F); additionally, their bodies shifted from metabolizing both carbohydrates and fat to using only fat for energy, a key feature of a hibernative state. A feedback feature was designed into the system to activate the ultrasound pulses if the mice showed signs of waking up; the mice were kept in this hibernation-like state for 24 hours, and regained normal consciousness shortly after the devices were deactivated.

The technique worked just as well on rats, with the larger rodents seeing a 1°C (1.8°F) drop in body temperature. If the technique proves to be just as effective on humans, being able artificially induce a state of suspended animation could revolutionize not only travel to nearby planets, but could also be applied in medical emergencies to heart attack and stroke victims, lowering their metabolic rates to help buy precious time to get the patient to a medical facility where they can be treated.

“If this proves feasible in humans, we could envision astronauts wearing a helmet-like device designed to target the hypothalamus region for inducing a hypothermia and hypometabolism state,” explains Chen.

“By extending the window for medical intervention, this technique offers promising prospects for improving patients’ chances of survival,” she continues. “Additionally, the non-invasive nature of the technique opens the possibility of developing wearable ultrasound devices, such as helmets, for easy access in emergency situations.”

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