Madagascar lemurs could help us explore farthest reaches of space – leading neuroscientists

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Human hibernation is one of the toughest stumbling blocks on the way to proper space exploration, which requires lengthy periods to reach distant worlds. But a team of neuroscientists believe little furry mammals could hold the key.

Not only are long-haul flights incredibly mentally and physically taxing, they also require an immense load of resources on board the spacecraft – water, food and oxygen. Keeping the crew in low-metabolism sleep has been researched for a good 40 years, until hibernation studies slowed down after the end of the Cold War.

Professor Vladyslav Vyazovsky, a Ukrainian neuroscientist at Oxford, now wants to reawaken that interest, working as part of a team on a special project by the European Space Agency.

“A journey to our nearest planet, Mars, would take around eight months using current technology,” he writes in a blog. “If we one day hope to visit another star system, even if we could travel at the speed of light, the journey would take years. Being able to go into a state of long-term torpor would make such distances considerably less tedious for the astronauts and conserve vital resources.”

Vyazovsky believes that, since torpor – or inactivity – in animals has evolved to coincide with factors like scarce food, this state of reduced metabolism can potentially be regulated in humans. An assumption of this sort is of course difficult to reach on its own.

However, there are different types of hibernation in different animals. And the research could take cue from obligatory hibernators – those who go to sleep regardless of resource scarcity – say, a large brown bear.

Then there is the Madagascar fat-tailed dwarf lemur, which possesses a special gift: going into hibernation for a lazy seven months. In that physiological state, the little critters slow their heart rate from 120 beats per minute to a mere six beats.

Similar unique gifts have been studied in other mammals – for instance, bats retain particular types of memory better than others after hibernation, which raises its own series of questions. Bears are able not to urinate or defecate for the entire duration of their sleep, converting that waste into energy.

According to Vyazovsky and his team, what we as a species need to understand is how to hibernate safely, and how to know when to do so. For now, the only way to make humans hibernate is through “aggressive use of drugs,” as it is the only way to block human thermoregulation.

The ESA study team believes that further dissecting the brain circuits of such gifted mammals could hold the key to catapulting us to alien worlds.