Sleep--it's one of the most vital components for sustaining human life. Given its importance it would seem logical to assume that we would try to make more time for it, however, the opposite is true, unfortunately.
People all too often struggle with sleep or even skip it. Perhaps for this reason, a slew of products, from innovative sleep sensors to even smart salt lamps have been developed to help us improve the quality of our rest at night.
However, now, according to a team of scientists, there may be even more reasons to indulge in sleep and lots of it! It seems that bears may not be the only animals who can benefit from the winter slumber known as hibernation.
These researchers so believe in sleep they are interested in pooling their collective knowledge to find ways to mimic hibernation based on certain advantages in preserving energy which they believe it provides. (Before our readers get too excited, it seems appropriate to point out that the researchers are not suggesting that we cash out our annual vacation leave time and take an uninterrupted nap for weeks at a time.)
A Meeting of the Minds
The experts gathered yesterday in New Orleans at a conference organized by the American Physiological Society (APS). At the Comparative Physiology: Complexity and Integration conference, they specifically discussed hibernation and the highly inactive state known as torpor.
Torpor is defined by scientists in the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior as "a temporary drop in body temperature and metabolic rate often accompanied by failure to eat or micturate/defecate, is an adaptation of endothermic vertebrates that enables them to survive the energetic demands of cold ambient temperature".
At the symposium, titled, "Harnessing naturally evolved torpor to benefit human spaceflight", there was a lively discussion about the interactions between the brain and a synthetic form of torpor, and in addition, the possibility of employing the torpor for use one day for everything from healthcare to energy conversation to astronauts travelling to space.
The Benefits for Space Travel
“Synthetic torpor could protect astronauts from space-related health hazards and simultaneously reduce demands on spacecraft mass, volume and power capacities,” explained Matthew Regan, PhD, also from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and symposium co-chair.
And growing body of research seems to agree. In a study looking at the lower metabolic rates of astronauts during space missions due to the dramatic decrease in gravity levels, a team of scientists discussed the possibilities of finding ways to reduce the energetic needs of astronauts by inducing a hypometabolic, or dramatically lower metabolic rate.
The only blind spot for the researchers is about not having a strong enough understanding of the role the nervous system plays during torpor. “For an animal to enter torpor, the neurons within the raphe pallidus have to be inhibited,” explained Matteo Cerri, MD and PhD, from the University of Bologna in Italy. "If function in these cells is not suppressed, “their activity would counteract the hypothermia induced by torpor."
To become an astronaut requires a great deal of study and physical as well as mental preparation. Adding to this the effects which the weightless environment can have on the body and it becomes apparent why the research and development strategies being discussed by scientists like those who gathered for the symposium are so vital. But needless to say it is a great start that may one day see us head to Mars while asleep!