Hibernation could be used to treat heart conditions, scientists claim
A skull from the Sima de los Huesos - Philippe Desmazes / AFP
Hibernation could be used to treat heart disease, scientists have claimed, as new evidence emerges that old people may have slept for months to survive brutal winters.
Prof. Kelly Drew, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Department of Arctic Biology, said inducing deep stasis could be helpful for those suffering from stroke or cardiac arrest.
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She is working on a new drug that can be used to cool the body temperature, for example by turning down a thermostat, which lowers the metabolism and saves energy - similar to when an animal is in hibernation.
Lowering body temperature is an essential part of treating patients recovering from cardiac arrest. They are cooled to 32-36 ° C for about 24 hours and then slowly reheated.
When cooling down, the body usually trembled while warming up, making it difficult to maintain the desired temperature. This reaction could be avoided by using drugs to induce some sort of human hibernation.
"We believe this is a first step towards getting humans into a hibernation-like state," she said.
"This should make it easier to cool down and avoid the use of paralytics. Paralytics are now the means to stop the tremors, but paralytics cause myopathy (muscle breakdown) and extend hospital stays."
A dormouse in hibernation - Arterra Picture Library
Meanwhile, researchers from Greece and Spain have made new claims that hibernation may previously have been an integral part of human existence.
They say the bones of people who lived in Europe half a million years ago show that they were vitamin D deficient.
This means they spent months in caves with no lights to cope with the freezing temperatures characteristic of the time, they claim.
The remains come from the Sima de los Huesos ("Pit of Bones") site in northern Spain - one of the most important places in the world for research into human evolution.
Over the years, more than 7,500 skeletal fossils have been unearthed from 29 ancient people. They belong to a long-extinct species called Homo heidelbergensis, which were ancestors of the Neanderthals.
However, scientists now claim that previous analysis of the remains failed to detect a cluster of conditions associated with vitamin D deficiency.
These include renal osteodystrophy, when the kidneys fail to maintain proper calcium levels, and rickets, a condition in which the bones become soft and weak.
Dr. Antonis Bartsiokas from the Democritus University of Thrace in Greece and his colleague Prof. Juan Luis Arsuaga from the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain made the diagnosis on the basis of unusually thick bone deposits over the eye sockets.
Dr. Bartsiokas claims these conditions are evidence that old people routinely spent months in dark environments, deprived of access to sunlight and having difficulty absorbing enough vitamin D.
"This idea may sound crazy, but it's crazy enough to be true," said Dr. Bartsiokas.
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