Sets of scientists have by themselves hit upon a “brain switch” that causes hungry mice to go into hibernation-like state to save energy. They hope for the possibility to induce identical states in people.
Sinisa Hrvatin from Harvard Medical School believes that suspended animation could make life much easy in the future, as it paths ways to a lot of futuristic potentials. He also points out that brain switch makes it possible to control some form of suspended animation in mice.
“Suspended animation could transform medicine. And also open the door to fantastic possibilities such as space travel and life extension,” he says.
As a way to survive in difficult times, a lot of birds and mammals, in most cases, lower their body temperature and go into a state of suspended animation. Some of them hibernate through winters. While others go into a state called torpor for hours or days to conserve energy.
Mice usually go into torpor only when they run out of food. But Sinisa Hrvatin and his team genetically engineered some of these animals so that they would be able to control the activity of some particular neurons by just injecting a chemical. The team showed that stimulating specific clusters of neurons in the hypothalamus can trigger a torpor-like state in the mice. (even in those that are well fed). They also showed that inhibiting these cells prevents mice from go into torpor.
In a different study, Takeshi Sakurai from the University of Tsukuba in Japan hit upon the same brain switch using an entirely different approach. Takeshi Sakurai and his own team searched for neurons in mice that produce a short protein called QRFP. Which previous studies showed to be linked to torpor. They discovered that stimulating these neurons induced that state. They also figured out that stimulating the equivalent neurons in rats had the same effect. Even though rats don’t always go into torpor on a normal day.
If by any chance we are able to induce a similar state in people, it could have many applications in medicine. And could help to treat everything from cancer to strokes and injuries. But it is not yet clear whether or not this brain switch also exists in humans.
“We don’t know if humans have the same cells. And we don’t know if stimulating them would have the same effect,” Sinisa Hrvatin says.