Monkey Experiment reveals a brain switch that could be useful for space travel: ScienceAlert

Monkey Experiment reveals a brain switch that could be useful for space travel: ScienceAlert

Monkey Experiment reveals a brain switch that could be useful for space travel: ScienceAlert

If humans ever want to venture among the stars, we’re going to have to solve some serious logistical problems.

Not the least of which is the travel time. Space is so vast and human technology so limited that the time it takes to travel to another star is a significant barrier.

The Voyager 1 probe, for example 73,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the sun, at its current speed.

Voyager launched more than 40 years ago, and more recent spacecraft can be expected to travel faster; yet the journey would still take thousands of years with our current technology.

One possible solution would be generation ships, which would see several generations of space travelers live and die before reaching their final destination. Another would be artificial hibernation, if it could be successfully implemented.

Here’s what scientists at the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology (SIAT) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have come to investigate; not in humans, but in monkeys, by chemically inducing a state of hypothermia.

“Here we show that activating a subpopulation of preoptic area (POA) neurons through a chemogenetic strategy reliably induces hypothermia in anesthetized and free-moving macaques,” write the researchers in their paper.

“Taken together, our findings demonstrate the central regulation of body temperature in primates and pave the way for future application in clinical practice.”

Hibernation and its slightly less comatose state, torpor, are physiological states that allow animals to withstand adverse conditions, such as extreme cold and low oxygen.

Body temperature drops and metabolism slows to a crawl, leaving the body in a bare ‘maintenance mode’ – the bare minimum to stay alive while prevent atrophy.

This is found in several animals, including warm-blooded mammals, but in very few primates. Neuroscientists Wang Hong and Dai Ji of SIAT wanted to see if they could artificially induce a state of hypometabolism, or even hibernation, in primates by chemically manipulating neurons in the hypothalamus responsible for sleep and thermoregulation processes – the preoptic neurons.

The study was conducted on three young male crab-eating monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). In both anesthetized and non-anesthetized states, the researchers applied drugs designed to activate specific modified receptors in the brain, known as Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs, or DREADDs.

Then the scientists studied the results using functional magnetic resonance imagingbehavioral changes and physiological and biochemical changes.

Monkey Experiment reveals a brain switch that could be useful for space travel: ScienceAlert
An illustration showing the role preoptic neurons play in hypothermia. (SIAT)

“To examine the brain-wide network as a result of activation of the preoptic area (POA), we performed fMRI scans and identified multiple regions involved in thermoregulation and interoception,” says Dai.

“This is the first fMRI study to examine the brain-wide functional connections revealed by chemogenetic activation.”

The researchers found that a synthetic drug called Clozapine N-oxide (CNO) reliably induced hypothermia in both the anesthetized and awake states in the macaques.

However, in anesthetized monkeys, CNO-induced hypothermia resulted in a drop in core body temperature, preventing external heating. The researchers say this demonstrates the critical role POA neurons play in primate thermoregulation.

The researchers recorded behavioral changes in the awake monkeys and compared them to those of mice with induced hypothermia. Typically, mice reduce their activity and lower their heart rate in an attempt to retain heat.

The monkeys, on the other hand, showed an increased heart rate and activity and also began to shiver. This suggests that thermoregulation is more complex in primates than in mice; hibernation in humans (if at all possible) will have to take this into account.

“This work provides the first successful demonstration of hypothermia in a primate based on targeted neuronal manipulation,” says Wang.

“With the growing passion for human spaceflight, this hypothermic ape model is a milestone on the long road to artificial hibernation.”

The research has been published in The innovation.

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