What Can Humans Learn from Grizzly Bear Hibernation? Scientists Are Working on It

published Nov 18, 2019
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Hibernation sounds pretty appealing at this time of year. As the days grow shorter, the meals grow heartier, and the holidays encourage coziness, eating, and rest, it’s easy to feel envious of those animals who can crawl into a cave, curl up, and sleep for months. And it’s not just the laziest among us who wonder what hibernation might be like for humans. Scientists are also studying animals that hibernate to learn how humans might apply the same principles for our health.

Recently, researchers at the Washington State University Bear Center (the only grizzly bear research center in the United States) published the results of a study they did on hibernation. They wanted to learn more about why grizzly bears can make it through months of hibernation without adverse effects on their health. 

Grizzly bears hibernate for about five months out of the year, according to Yellowstone National Park. While hibernating, they don’t eat or drink (or urinate or defecate), and they maintain a normal body temperature. Researchers wanted to know how bears could be so inactive for so long while prolonged inactivity in humans can lead to health issues like type-2 diabetes.

During the study, they took samples of bears’ fat, muscle, and liver tissues before, during, and after hibernation and sequenced their RNA to see what effect hibernation has on their genes. “The team found that the bears’ fatty tissues changed the most during hibernation, whereas the muscle tissue hardly changed at all,” explains The New York Times. “The muscle cells remained active through the hibernation period, which might help explain why those tissues do not atrophy.”

Researchers also found that fat tissue change during hibernation in grizzly bears looks much different than it does in dwarf lemurs, another hibernating animal. In a nutshell, this means that hibernation is very complicated, and applying it to humans (to preserve organs longer for transplants, for example, or to combat inactivity-related health problems or send us on long trips through space in the dystopian future) won’t be as simple as injecting us with just the right hormone.

For now, the closest we’ll get to hibernation is a long, cozy nap.