© 2024
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Understanding Hibernation Could Help Trauma Patients

Hibernating black bear mother and cubs.
National Park Service

Hibernation is far more than a long winter's nap. It's more akin to a coma, with heart rate, breathing, metabolism, and consciousness all dramatically reduced, if not suspended. Steve Swoap is among those who think understanding hibernation could help doctors treat victims of trauma or stroke.

Steve Swoap didn't set out to study hibernation. He's a cardiac biologist by training. About fifteen years ago, he was conducting experiments on the link between obesity and blood pressure (in mice). The problem was, when he put the mice on a diet, they kept hibernating. And so, the course of Swoap's career shifted.

Swoap is professor of biology at Williams College and, last year, he got funding from the National Institutes of Health to investigate how what we know about hibernation relates to therapeutic hypothermia, also known as medically-induced coma. While the practice remains somewhat controversial, doctors see promise in treating trauma and stroke patients by inducing a hibernation-like state that impedes the inflammation process.

The problem is that our bodies fight the process at every step, trying to maintain a normal body temperature. Swoap says the holy grail would be finding a way to imitate hibernators' receptive response to cooling, to make for a gentler, more effective treatment.

That is still a long way away, though. One obstacle is the fact that most biomedical research is conducted with a small handful of animals, most of whom don't hibernate. On the flip side, most hibernators don't fit well into a laboratory setting, and we don't have the same kinds of background knowledge and advanced tools for studying them.

Swoap says he finds straddling ecology and biomedicine exciting, and he enjoys building bridges between the two fields. But, he notes, funding can be difficult to come by when you don't fit into preconceived categories.

Stay Connected