Astronauts and Bears

I recently read a European Space Agency article about the bed rest studies they are conducting to simulate the effects of weightlessness on the body.  What's a bed rest study, you ask? It's one where volunteers are placed in hospital beds that have the head end tilted below the feet, and are told to remain there 24 hours a day for periods as long as 60 days.

You read that right. Participants eat, shower, read, surf the internet, exercise, etc. all without leaving their beds. The extended periods spent in bed cause the body to undergo the same degradation as astronauts experience in weightless environments. Bone and muscle loss, as well as metabolic changes, occur in a similar fashion in free fall as they do in bed. This research allows doctors and other scientists to study the effects of low and micro-gravity environments on people without having to spend the resources to get them into space.

Are these studies important?
As we reach for the stars with ever growing ambition mission times are increasing. Right now, astronauts spend long periods of time—up to six months—on the International Space Station, and with missions to Mars on the agenda, they will spend even longer living in micro-gravity. These studies will help scientists understand and prepare for the medical effects of such long missions. On the Earth-bound side of things, this research will help bedridden patients avoid debilitating effects.

One possible solution for long-term missions in space (and long-term stays in the hospital) comes from an unlikely source with a transhuman angle: bears.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia Commons
By User: Simm
Everyone knows that bears hibernate during the winter months to conserve energy. What might amaze you is that they don't lose muscle or bone mass while they do. Recent studies have shown that a hibernating bear is somehow able to regulate its metabolism so that its body does not go through the normal atrophy process (read an article about it here). The mechanisms of this amazing ability, it is thought, can be transferred to humans (we're both mammals, after all). Although still poorly understood, one day it might be possible to have astronauts hibernate their way from Earth to Mars or beyond and wake up just as fit as they were when they left Earth.

It also might be possible for people who are bedridden to receive similar benefits from this research. If you've ever had a broken bone you know that the immobilized limbs are atrophied when the cast comes off. Similar atrophy occurs for patients who are unable to move for extended periods of time. Learning the mechanisms bears use to avoid this fate may be adaptable to hospital patients, rendering physical therapy and rehabilitation a thing of the past. This could take the form of an injectable medicine, or perhaps, might be a gene, or set of genes, that can be transplanted into the human genome (which itself raises more issues around ethics).

Previous posts in this blog have opened discussions on cybernetic implants and genetic engineering. I'm ending this one with this thought:

If you could receive some kind of gene therapy to give you the power to hibernate  or at least not experience muscle atrophy, would you take it?


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