Suspended Animation: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

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For most of us, sleep is a resting period in which we can lay aside the burdens of today and the worries of tomorrow. We may even have an exciting dream which takes us away from the mundane activities of life ... at least until the darn alarm goes off and wakes us up. Then we get dressed and go to work. But what if we could go back to bed and still be at work on time? This is the dream of astronauts and fans of science fiction: to be able to sleep away a long journey through the use of suspended animation.

Suspended astronaut from Prometheus. 

Suspended astronaut from Prometheus

Suspended animation is the deep sleep state created by slowing or even stopping vital functions of the human body without causing death. The primary method of triggering this state is by putting someone to sleep, and then cooling their body to an extremely low temperature, reducing the cellular activity and metabolic rate. In this induced state of hypothermia, the body requires less oxygen, nutrients, and even water, in order to function.

However, in contrast to what many of us have seen or read about in science fiction, suspended animation does not involve actually freezing the body. This would be the domain of cryonics, which relies on the possibility that future technology will be able to repair the damage sustained prior to being frozen.

Part of the crew in suspended animation during the trip to Jupiter, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Part of the crew in suspended animation during the trip to Jupiter, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Most examples of science fiction have some form of suspended animation used on long flights through outer space. And while we have the capability to induce a state of suspended animation in humans, there are still many problems that need to be resolved, such as the potential onset of pneumonia, muscle atrophy and bone loss, as well as the fact that we still do not know the long term effects of the process on the human body.

Han Solo suspended in carbonite, Return of the Jedi.

Han Solo suspended in carbonite, Return of the Jedi.

If the process was perfected, suspended animation would usher in a new era of space exploration. For the sleeping astronauts, there would be no need for amenities like food galleys, exercise equipment, and entertainment centers. There would be a great reduction in consumable resources such as food, water, and oxygen due to the decrease in the astronauts' cellular activity and metabolic rate. With these cutbacks in space and resources, ships could be made smaller and lighter than current spacecraft, as well as implement more safety features, such as better radiation shielding. In addition, lighter spacecraft would require less fuel and less powerful rockets in order to launch. Aside from the monetary savings, the astronauts would not feel the psychological stress of space madness as they would spend the journey to their destination, "asleep."

Currently, NASA is funding SpaceWorks, an aerospace engineering firm which focuses on developing concept designs for next-generation space technologies. The firm is developing a spacecraft which has the ability to support astronauts in suspended animation, known as the Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitat for Human Stasis to Mars.

While the use of suspended animation has yet to be used in space travel, there are still applications for it here on Earth. Dr. Sam Tisherman has recently started human trials on suspended animation for victims of gunshot and stabbing wounds. Known in the medical community as emergency preservation and resuscitation (EPR), Dr. Tisherman plans to put patients in a state of torpor by replacing the patient's blood with a very cold saline solution, cooling the patient's body and giving the surgeons time to repair the damage done to their bodies.

Samuel Tisherman, M.D., explains a new trial that will soon be underway at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC. The Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation For Cardiac Arrest From Trauma (EPR-CAT) study seeks to rescue patients who have suffered cardiac arrest due to massive bleeding by chilling them to nearly 50 degrees below normal body temperature.

Suspended animation may still be a dream within a dream, but the first steps are being taken in order to make that dream a reality.

 

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