Discover Magazine’s May 2007 edition has an amazing up date on work being conducted into induced hibernation in mammals. In recent years news arose of dogs and pigs being aroused from a death-like state after several hours, and of mice being induced to go into metabolic slow-down by breathing the right concentration of hydrogen sulphide. As the Discover article relates the work has gone further with dogs and pigs being put into hibernation by hydrogen sulphide and the amazing story of a Japanese man, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi, who went into a hypothermic torpor for 24 days after being knocked unconscious.
Naturally the first thought for the medicos working with this surprise mammalian ability is the preservation of a patient’s life when they’ve suffered major injury. If they can be suspended in a low metabolic state, then transfers from incident site to an ER becomes infinitely easier, giving the victim a much needed time-extension. Also many different major surgical procedures would become much less risky if a patient’s blood pressure, heart rate and so forth can be slowed to a crawl.
Of course, for a space-minded thinker, the next questions are:
In fiction there’s a long tradition of suspended animation, either through extreme metabolic reduction and/or cryopreservation. The new prospect of a natural suspended animation in all mammals is a rather exciting step forward for the credibility of the concept. Another curious prospect is based on the observation that mice which have had their metabolisms reduced, but not all the way into torpor, are able to breathe an atmosphere with a much lower oxygen content than what would otherwise kill them. Perhaps this provides a way to allow people to adapt to non-standard atmospheres?
James Blish’s 1965 novel, Welcome to Mars, uses just such a plot device to allow the protagonist to breathe the thin Martian air – as thickened by being at the bottom of Hellas. Unfortunately for Blish’s story a few weeks later Mariner 4 showed the Martian atmosphere was less than 1/10th of the expected density. Still he did correctly predict that there would be plenty of impact craters and what “canals” (channels) that existed would be geomorphological in origin. He also predicted a frozen sea of ice, which Mars Express potentially has discovered.