Some animals go into hibernation when the temperature becomes low and food are scarce. The physiological process, which occurs naturally in some species, reduces the normal metabolism to low levels for days or even weeks at a time.
These periods of low metabolism, called torpor, allows the body temperatures of animals to fall to just above the surrounding air temperature, which in turn helps them conserve energy.
Humans do not undergo torpor but scientist are interested in the idea of producing synthetic torpor in certain situations, such as during spaceflights.
In a press release from the American Physiological Society which was published by EurekAlert, Matthew Regan, from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, said that synthetic torpor may protect astronauts from space-related health hazards.
It may also reduce demands on spacecraft volume and mass, as well as power, which can help lessen the cost of long spaceflights.
A trip to planet Mars lasts six to nine months, and during this time, human passengers would need to use precious resources such as air, water, and food.
Regan and other researchers gathered at the American Physiological Society's Comparative Physiology: Complexity and Integration conference in New Orleans on October 27 to explore how synthetic torpor may be induced by the brain, how it could benefit astronauts during space missions, and what makes it different or similar to sleep.
Besides reducing the costs and resources needed for long space travel, putting humans into hibernation also has health benefits, according to SpaceWorks president and former NASA engineer John Bradford.
According to CNET, the Atlanta-based company is already working on making humans hibernate on long interplanetary trips.
Bradford said that research has shown that slowing the metabolism may help counter muscle atrophy, bone demineralization, and intracranial pressure that astronauts tend to experience in the low gravity environment of space. Some evidence even suggests that it can help protect against radiation.
Doug Talk, SpaceWorks' medical team lead on the project, said that the human body just does not really do well in space and it is important to find a way to make the human adaptable to the microgravity environment.
"We have a term in medicine we use called 'biological plausibility;' meaning that if you look at what we're doing and look at the human body and how it works, it makes sense," Talk said.
"This technology has biological plausibility; it could actually be beneficial to humans in space."