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Could Humans Hibernate?

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Some animals have it made. Their whole day revolves around eating and having sex (and, to be fair, trying not to get eaten themselves). And when winter arrives, they get to curl up somewhere and wait things out until the weather is nice again. Can humans get in on this hibernation thing?

Bear image via Shutterstock

First, a note on the lingo. While people often use the term loosely to refer to any state of dormancy in animals, true hibernation is a pretty specific thing characterized by “profound reductions in metabolism, oxygen consumption and heart rate.”

A hibernating animal’s core body temperature drops to extreme lows, sometimes matching the local outside temperature. As its body cools, its metabolism slows. This reduces the need for oxygen, and its breathing will also slow, sometimes to just one to five breaths per minute. The heart rate will likewise slow to just a few beats per minute. All of this ensures that the animal’s body will conserve as much energy as possible, which is necessary because it’s largely fueling itself with a limited supply of fat. "True hibernators" don’t shut down for the whole winter, though, and occasionally rouse to use the bathroom, eat from stored food, and stretch a little so their muscles don’t atrophy. Some animals may even switch hibernation spots.

Animals go into this energy-saving mode to ride out long stretches of environmental extremes, like lack of food and water, or very cold or very hot seasonal temperatures (dormancy during cold seasons is hibernation, and dormancy in the summer is called aestivation). Humans can deal with these situations while remaining active because we have things like canned food, greenhouse tomatoes, air conditioners, heaters, and turtleneck sweaters. Our bodies aren’t required to hibernate and we’re not perfectly adapted to it, but scientists have turned up a number of ways in which we’re pretty close.

Deep Sleepers

There are plenty of documented cases of humans going into hibernation-like states. In October, 2006, rescuers found Mitsutaka Uchikoshi 24 days after he’d gone missing on western Japan’s Mount Rokko. When they discovered him, he had no detectable pulse or respiration and his body temperature had dropped to 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Doctors would later confirm that his metabolism was almost at a standstill. When he woke up, remarkably showing no signs of brain damage or other ill effects, he explained that the last thing he remembered was falling on the trail and hitting his head. The entire time he’d been missing, he was unconscious, exposed to the elements and without food or water. The doctors who treated him said that the quick onset of hypothermia slowed his body down like hibernation would, and probably saved his life.

Similar survival stories include a Norwegian skier who’d fallen into icy water and woke up unfazed after showing no heartbeat, no respiration, and a core temperature of 57ºF, and the Canadian toddler who got lost outside on a cold night and was later revived after cooling to 61ºF and exhibiting no heartbeat for a full two hours.

In a controlled experiment in the early 1970s, the Yogi Satyamurti confined himself to a small, sealed underground pit in a state of deep meditation for eight straight days while being monitored by an electrocardiogram. At first, the yogi’s heart rate was normal, and then increased to 250 bpm for a while. On the evening to the second day, the ECG flatlined and remained like that until about 30 minutes before the pit was scheduled to be opened on the last day. The astonished researchers who’d been monitoring the yogi - whose core temperature had dropped four degrees in the pit - were sure that something was wrong with their equipment, but couldn’t find any malfunction or explanation besides the yogi’s heart stopping or decreasing in electrical activity below a recordable level.

Sleep image via Shutterstock

It looks like our bodies have some of the abilities needed for hibernation. But like we said already, we’ve never had to, so our bodies aren’t completely adapted to the task. A few of the things holding us back are rather big obstacles. For example, researchers at the Paul Flechsig Institute for Brain Research in Leipzig discovered a few years ago that the brains of hibernating ground squirrels have brain cells containing modified proteins that are similar to those in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. The synapses that connect the brain’s neurons in both groups were also similarly degraded. The catch is that the squirrels’ brains bounce back after hibernation. They repair themselves and the animals show no signs of damage when they wake up in the spring, while human brains in the same state continue to deteriorate.

But hibernation on-demand would be useful to humans for reasons other than avoiding winter. Inducing hibernation in an accident victim on the way to the hospital could stave off extreme blood loss and cell breakdown, plus buy surgeons extra time to repair the injuries. It would also allow for the sort of space exploration that only seems possible in the movies. Placing astronauts in a dormant state, like in the Alien franchise, would allow them to sleep off the multiple years it would take for a spacecraft to travel to the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond.

Put to Bed

Researchers have been toying around with various ways to turn hibernation states “on” in animals over the last few years. Hydrogen sulfide seems to be one possible way to do that. By binding at the same cell sites as oxygen, the gaseous compound reduces the need for oxygen and depresses the metabolism. Mark Roth at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle induced hibernation for the first time in lab mice in 2005 by having them inhale large doses of a hydrogen sulfide gas. Their metabolic processes slowed, their temperatures dropped, and then they snapped right out of it when they got a big breath of oxygen hours later.

Surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital took a different approach in an experiment on Yorkshire pigs, to see how beneficial induced hibernation was in a trauma setting. After anesthetizing the pigs and giving them serious wounds that led to shock and extreme blood loss, the surgeons quickly chilled the pigs' bodies to 50ºF and pumped their veins full of a solution used for preserving transplant organs. At that point, the pigs were almost dead. They had little to no heartbeat, extremely reduced blood flow and no measurable electrical activity in the brain. The surgeons operated on the pigs and repaired their injuries. The pigs were revived when their temperatures were returned to normal and warm blood was pumped back in. The pigs bounced back with no noticeable physical or cognitive impairments.

While these are incredible breakthroughs and promising starts, we’re still a long way from making human hibernation simple, safe, and reliable. Other experiments failed to induce hibernation in sheep and pigs with hydrogen sulfide, so it might not work on larger animals, including us. Testing the Massachusetts method on humans, meanwhile, would be a bit tricky, ethically speaking. It’s a start, though, and sooner or later we might move beyond mere sleep and hibernate our way through surgery, or a flight to Jupiter.

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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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