Short-Term Suspended Animation for Humans Is Coming Soon
At 1 a.m., Tony B. is flown to a shock trauma center of a university hospital. Five minutes earlier, he was picked up unconscious with no blood pressure, having suffered multiple gunshot wounds with severe blood loss. Standard measures alone would not have saved his life, but on the helicopter he was injected with ice-cold fluids intravenously to begin cooling him from the inside, and given special drugs to protect his heart and brain.
Suspended animation is not routine yet, but it's going through clinical trials at the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh.
A surgeon accesses Tony's aorta, allowing his body to be flushed with larger amounts of cold fluids, thereby inducing profound hypothermia -- a body temperature below 10° C (50° F). This is suspended animation, a form of human hibernation, but officially the procedure is called Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation for Cardiac Arrest from Trauma (EPR-CAT).
This chilly state, which constitutes the preservation component of Tony's care, continues for an hour as surgeons repair injuries and connect his circulation to cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). This allows blood to move through the brain delivering oxygen at low doses appropriate for the sharply reduced metabolic rate that comes with the hypothermia, without depending on the heart and lungs. CPB also enables controlled, gradual re-warming of Tony's body as fluid and appropriate amounts of red blood cells are transfused into him.
After another hour or so, Tony's body temperature reaches the range of 32-34° C (~90-93° F), called mild hypothermia. Having begun the fluid resuscitation process already, the team stops warming Tony, switches his circulation from CPB to his own heart and lungs, and begins cardiac resuscitation with electrical jolts to his heart. With his blood pressure stable, his heart rate slow but appropriate for the mild hypothermia, Tony is maintained at this intermediate temperature for 24 hours; this last step is already standard practice in treatment of people who suffer cardiac arrest without blood loss trauma.
The purpose is to prevent brain damage that might come with the rapid influx of too much oxygen, just as a feast would mean death to a starvation victim. After he is warmed to a normal temperature of 37° C (~99° F), Tony is awakened and ultimately recovers with no brain damage.
Tony's case is fictional; EPR-CAT is not routine yet, but it's going through clinical trials at the University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh, under the direction of trauma surgeon Dr. Samuel Tisherman, who spent many years developing the procedure in dogs and pigs. In such cases, patients undergo suspended animation for a couple of hours at most, but other treatments are showing promise in laboratory animals, like the use of hydrogen sulfide gas without active cooling to induce suspended animation in mice. Such interventions could ultimately fuse with EPR-CAT, sending the new technology further into what's still the realm of science fiction – at least for now.
Consider the scenario of a 5-year-old girl diagnosed with a progressive, incurable, terminal disease.
Experts say that extended suspended animation – cooling patients in a stable state for months or years -- could be possible at some point, although no one can predict when the technology will be clinical reality, since hydrogen sulfide and other chemical tactics would have to move into clinical use in humans and prove safe and effective in combination with EPR-CAT, or with a similar cooling approach.
How Could Long-Term Suspended Animation Impact Humanity?
Consider the scenario of a 5-year-old girl diagnosed with a progressive, incurable, terminal disease. Since available treatments would only lengthen the projected survival by a year, she is placed into suspended animation. She is revived partially every few years, as new treatments become available that can have a major impact on her disease. After 35 years of this, she is revived completely as treatments are finally adequate to cure her condition, but biologically she has aged only a few months. Physically, she is normal now, though her parents are in their seventies, and her siblings are grown and married.
Such hypothetical scenarios raise many issues: Where will the resources come from to take care of patients for that long? Who will pay? And how will patients adapt when they emerge into a completely different world?
"Heavy resource utilization is a factor if you've got people hibernating for years or decades," says Bradford Winters, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, and assistant professor of neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins.
Conceivably, special high-tech facilities with robots and artificial intelligence watching over the hibernators might solve the resource issue, but even then, Winters notes that long-term hibernation would entail major disparities between the wealthy and poor. "And then there is the psychological effect of being disconnected from one's family and society for a generation or more," he says. "What happens to that 5-year-old waking to her retired parents and married siblings? Will her younger sister adopt her? What would that be like?"
Probably better than dying is one answer.
Back on Earth, human hibernation would raise daunting policy questions that may take many years to resolve.
Outside of medicine, one application of human hibernation that has intrigued generations of science fiction writers is in long-duration space travel. During a voyage lasting years or decades, space explorers or colonists not only could avoid long periods of potential boredom, but also the aging process. Considering that the alternative to "sleeper ships" would be multi-generation starships so large that they'd be like small worlds, human hibernation in spaceflight could become an enabling technology for interstellar flight.
Big Questions: It's Not Too Early to Ask
Back on Earth, the daunting policy questions may take many years to resolve. Society ought to be aware of them now, before human hibernation technology outpaces its dramatic implications.
"Our current framework of ethical and legal regulation is adequate for cases like the gunshot victim who is chilled deeply for a few hours. Short-term cryopreservation is currently part of the continuum of care," notes David N. Hoffman, a clinical ethicist and health care attorney who teaches at Columbia University, and at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
"But we'll need a new framework when there's a capability to cryopreserve people for many years and still bring them back. There's also a legal-ethical issue involving the parties that decide to put the person into hibernation versus the patient wishes in terms of what risk benefit ratio they would accept, and who is responsible for the expense and burdens associated with cases that don't turn out just right?"
To begin thinking about practical solutions, Hoffman characterizes long-term human hibernation as an extension of the ethics of cyro-preserved embryos that are held for potential parents, often for long periods of time. But the human hibernation issue is much more complex.
"The ability of the custodian and patient to enter into a meaningful and beneficial arrangement is fraught, because medical advances necessary to address the person's illness or injury are -- by definition -- unknown," says Hoffman. "It means that you need a third party, a surrogate, to act on opportunities that the patient could never have contemplated."
Such multigenerational considerations might become more manageable, of course, in an era when gene therapy, bionic parts, and genetically engineered replacement organs enable dramatic life extension. But if people will be living for centuries regardless of whether or not they hibernate, then developing the medical technology may be the least of the challenges.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”