The thinking goes, if animals can hibernate, humans should be able to and hence we can avoid death and move towards immortality. Frank Swain reports on scientists’ progress in the hunt for human hibernation for BBC Future:
…Suspended animation, the ability to set a person’s biological processes on hold, has long been a staple of science fiction. Interest in the field blossomed in the 1950s as a direct consequence of the space race. Nasa poured money into biological research to see if humans might be placed in a state of artificial preservation. In this state, it was hoped, astronauts could be protected from the dangerous cosmic rays zapping through space. Sleeping your way to the stars also meant carrying far less food, water and oxygen, making the ultimate long-haul flight more practical.
One recipient of that funding was a young James Lovelock. The scientist would dunk hamsters into ice baths until their bodies froze. Once he could no longer detect a heartbeat, he would reanimate them by placing a hot teaspoon against their chest (in later experiments, Lovelock warmed to the space-age theme by building a microwave gun out of spare radio parts to more gently revive his test subjects). These experiments on the flexibility of life would set him on the path to his most famous work, the “Gaia hypothesis” of the world as a living super-organism.
Adventurous as they were, these early experiments did not progress beyond the animal stage, and astronauts were never frozen and revived with hot spoons. The idea of transforming people into inanimate bars of flesh for long-distance space travel remained in the realm of science fiction. Nasa’s interest tailed off with the end of the space race, but the seeds planted by Lovelock and his colleagues continued to grow.
In 1900, the British Medical Journal published an account of Russian peasants who, the author claimed, were able to hibernate. Existing in a state approaching “chronic famine”, residents of the north-eastern Pskov region would retreat indoors at the first sign of snow, and there gather around the stove and fall into a deep slumber they called “lotska”. Waking once a day to wash some hard bread down with water, the family took it in turns to watch the fire, only rousing themselves fully once spring had broken. No trace of the sleepy peasants of Pskov has ever emerged since, but the fantasy of human hibernation persists, and very occasionally, something that looks very similar to it crosses into reality.
A century later, Anna Bagenholm was on a skiing holiday in Norway when she crashed head first into a frozen stream and became trapped under the ice. When rescuers finally arrived, the Swedish radiologist had been submerged for 80 minutes, and her heart and breathing had stopped. Doctors at Tromso University Hospital recorded a body temperature of 13.7C, the lowest ever observed in a victim of accidental hypothermia. By all accounts she appeared to have drowned. And yet, after careful rewarming and ten days spent in intensive care, Bagenholm woke up. She went on to recover almost fully from her cold brush with death. Under normal circumstances, even a few minutes trapped underwater would be enough to drown a person, and yet Bagenholm had survived for over an hour. Somehow the cold had preserved her…
[continues at BBC Future]
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