Animals that hibernate experience a huge number of amazing transformations. Metabolisms drop and get completely rewired so that they operate without food intake. Body temperatures and activity drop. Despite all these changes, animals remain somewhat functional—bears manage to give birth and nurse their cubs during their hibernation.
We have very little idea about how all of those transformations take place. This week, two different groups of researchers published papers that describe the neurons that control a similar state called torpor in mice. While mice don’t hibernate, these results suggest an obvious target to look at in mammals that do hibernate. And it raises the prospect that hibernation-like states might be available to all mammals—including us.
While mice don’t undergo hibernation like some other species, they have a similar state called torpor. Torpor can be triggered by a combination of low temperatures and lack of food. There’s a significant overlap between it and hibernation, in that the mice’s body temperature and activity drop, as do respiration and heart rate. But, unlike hibernation, the periods of torpor are relatively brief, with the mice mixing in periods of aggressively searching for food.