Researchers at Duke University say studying hibernation in a certain species of lemur is giving them a better understanding of how sleep might help people with serious injuries or diseases.
A study published today in the journal PLOS ONE supports the theory that hibernation allows the animals to conserve energy through lower brain activity and metabolism. The lemur's heart rate drops to as low as four beats per minute during the state of hibernation called torpor.
"If, indeed, there is this ancestral capacity in mammals for hibernation or torpor, then that implies that it could be switched on at will," says Anne Yoder, co-author of the study.
"That's what we don't know; what is that master switch that would enable any mammal, including a human, to be put into induced torpor?"
Yoder's colleagues say that could save people who have had head trauma or heart attacks by sharply cutting the body's needs for oxygen to the brain and heart.
"You end up having loss of blood supply, which creates a diminished oxygen supply, which then leads to death of brain [or heart] cells," explains lead author Andrew Krystal.
"If you could put the person into an immediate hibernation state, you could diminish the death of tissue and greatly enhance survival."
Krystal and Yoder plan on studying other hibernating mammals to see if their findings are consistent. If researchers find out how to induce torpor in humans, they say it could theoretically lead to science-fiction-like scenarios where people would choose to hibernate to extend their lives or survive long-distance space travel.