Why hibernating bears could hold the secret to human deep space exploration

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Jul 13, 2015, 11:02 AM EDT (Updated)

While bears may be best at back-scratching, fish-swallowing and frightening picknickers, it's the nature of their hibernation that has NASA and medical scientists intrigued.

Though equipped with opposable thumbs and abstract thought, human beings don''t fare well on long space voyages and tend to experience severe muscle atrophy and bone density loss after prolonged cosmic excursions.  But researchers are now turning to the Ursus universe for answers as to how future astronauts may be able to make their missions more "bearable."  

According to a report in The Journal of Experimental Biology, black bears in hibernation mode trick their bodies into believing they're still out frolicking in the forest, instead of snoozing in a cozy den for six months. This little ruse reduces disuse osteoporosis by shutting down the body's bone-producing enzymes, as excessive lethargy in mammals will result in accelerated bone turnover leading to hypercalcemia and increased fracture risk.   To  obtain these results, scientists studied 13 female bears between 2006 and 2009, collecting blood and bone samples before, during and after hibernation periods, then carefully measured enzyme and hormone levels.

The researchers found that levels of a protein called "cocaine and amphetamine regulated transcript" (CART), which reduces the quantity of these specific bone minerals being broken down into the blood, increased 15-fold during hibernation.

“This could be the basis for a new therapy for astronauts, or people with a bone-related chronic illness,” said study author Meghan McGee-Lawrence, assistant professor in cellular biology and anatomy at Georgia Regents University in Augusta.

While the exact systemic details and mechanisms of this natural biological process are yet to be mapped, this may be a significant breakthrough to prevent bone wastage in star-skipping, deep-space astronauts, aging seniors and earthbound couch potatoes alike.

(Via Gamma Squad)

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