Institute for Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBMP RAS) logo.
Dec 17, 2022
Picture from the film "The 8th Passenger" (Alien)
One of the areas of work under the agreement between Roscosmos and the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IMBP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences is to study the possibility of immersing the crew of a space mission into an artificial sleep state. Deputy Director for Research at IBMP, Professor, Dr. med. science Yuri Bubeev in an article written for the journal "Russian Space", talks about the currently known methods of hibernation.
Isn't it fantasy anymore?
Yuri Arkadievich Bubeev
Probably, many air passengers during a long transcontinental flight envied those rare unique ones who managed to wake up cheerful and fresh after sleeping the entire flight. The crew of the aircraft, in turn, would be happy to carry sleeping passengers who do not need to be fed, watered, who do not pester with claims, do not create a queue for the toilet and do not wander around the cabin. The task of aircraft designers would also be simplified by reducing the weight and size parameters of the liner.
All of the above is also relevant in relation to long-term interplanetary missions, which for cosmonauts mean a painful stay in a very limited space with the same people for the psyche, and for the creators of space technology - intractable technical problems. As with long plane flights, it would be more pleasant (and safer, studies show) to simply sleep deeply and wake up just before landing on another planet.
Picture from the movie "Alien"
Delivering cargo and people into space remains incredibly expensive. And if we assume that the astronaut is in a state where the metabolism is reduced? Then he will need a minimum of space and resources for life. This will significantly reduce the weight and dimensions of the habitable module, which will ultimately lead to a significant reduction in the payload required to ensure life.
Many readers have probably watched the movie "Passengers", where during an interplanetary flight people stay in a capsule filled with some kind of gas. The artificial intelligence system injects the necessary drugs when necessary, and the person comes out of suspended animation. A promising hibernation system (from the English. Hibernation - “hibernation”; in this case, the state of a person immersed in artificial sleep for a long time) for future flights to Mars and other planets may look like this.
The concept of hibernation for interplanetary flights originated from a variety of sources, from common ideas about space travel in science fiction to rare scientifically documented stories about human survival in extreme conditions (alpinists, polar explorers, sailors, lost tourists, etc.).
Image above: Illustration by Vladimir Serov for "The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Bogatyrs" by A.S. Pushkin.
The methodological approaches that researchers around the world are currently working with can be summarized in the following main groups.
One option is hypothermia (from Greek ύπο “below, under” + θέρμη “heat”, hypothermia) created using special medical technology and the resulting slowdown in metabolism. For decades, this method has been applied to critically ill trauma patients and those who are about to undergo major surgery. There are special hypothermia techniques to reduce the metabolism of those affected and thereby gain time.
Another approach that is being intensively researched is the creation of pharmacological preparations for introducing a person into an artificial hypobiotic state (synthetic hypobiosis). These substances are used in the implementation of long-term operations, including in conjunction with hypothermia.
The features of hypobiosis are studied quite deeply and diversified, but science still does not have a key “fundamental fact”, knowledge of the basic mechanism that would allow creating a reproducible and safe technology for use in practice. A number of problems are purely medical in nature. What is the best way to safely put healthy people into hibernation? Therapeutic hypothermia in the operating room is well known, but these technologies are completely unsuitable for autonomous spaceflight. This area is still unexplored.
Sleep on internal command
Employees of the IBMP RAS at a meeting with the 14th Dalai Lama in New Delhi (India)
Academician V. V. Parin, who headed our institute shortly after its foundation, proposed the term "artificial hypobiosis". The idea is that during the transit phases of a space flight the crew of the ship would be in an artificially created dream-like state. As shown in a number of studies, this will reduce metabolism, increase the body's immunity to influences of various nature, including cosmic radiation, limit the influence of the hypomagnetic factor, hypokinesia, redistribution of blood, psychological stress, etc.
In this form, the expedition can be much easier than providing the crew with tons of cargo for about a year and a half, necessary, for example, for a flight to Mars and back. According to preliminary estimates, the periodic "shutdown" of the crew will reduce the total mass of the ship by 50-70 %, shorten the flight time, provide more reliable protection against radiation, due to a slowdown in metabolism.
This can be most advantageously used precisely during the transit phases of a space mission, when it is possible to rotate the members of the sleeping crew and wake up some astronauts to be on duty in critical areas.
As evidenced by the studies of a number of authors, including those of the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the mechanism of immersion in the state of hypobiosis is apparently present in every person, but it is blocked according to the universal biological principle “use it or you will lose it” and is activated in extreme life-threatening situations, as they say scientifically confirmed episodes of survival in extreme conditions.
It was also possible to localize this kind of “toggle switch”, which turns hypobiosis on and off. It turned out to be a group of neurons located in the hypothalamus. Since the mental sphere acts as a regulator of many functions of the body, including at the physiological and biological levels, changes in it can affect the functioning of other systems and organs, which in this case can be considered as psychophysiological, emotional-vegetative and physiological correlates. Therefore, experts drew attention to a number of mental exercises used to change the state of a person.
Scientific laboratory in the foothills of Tibet
Research of "forced" energy exchange by employees of the Institute on Elbrus
Of great practical interest are the practices of managing the body's energy exchange: both its sharp increase (survival at extremely low temperatures) and inhibition (a dream-like state for long-term missions) by methods of inducing an altered state of consciousness, which is practiced in a number of psychotechnics, including in Tibetan Buddhism.
The phenomena of spontaneous lethargic sleep are widely known, although still little studied. The term "lethargy" was used by Hippocrates. The well-known Russian physiologist I. P. Pavlov described a clinical case of a patient who spent 22 years in a psychiatric hospital department in a half-asleep state without movement, and then came to his senses, began to move and speak. In "The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Bogatyrs" by A. S. Pushkin, the main character is tricked into eating a poisoned apple, which plunges her into a deep sleep until her betrothed wakes her up. By the way, the “crystal coffin” in which the princess lies is an almost ready-made design idea for a hibernation capsule.
Exploring the role of the psychic sphere and its influence on energy exchange, we are moving in a kind of broad front for the selection of psychotechnologies suitable for long-term space flights. It is generally recognized that Buddhism has been the most successful in this area, honing its psychotechnologies for more than two and a half millennia. Many techniques for working with the mental sphere are well known and have entered the arsenal of modern psychotherapy, forming its methodological basis; many psychotechnologies remain little studied or not at all familiar to Western science.
Obviously, the most successful study of a new direction is possible when communicating with the most experienced experts in the subject area.
Our somewhat unusual scientific collaboration with the head and spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, Nobel Peace Prize winner began thanks to the chief researcher of our institute, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences S. V. Medvedev, when a group of Russian scientists from the Institute of the Human Brain named after N. P. Bekhtereva of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow State University named after M. V. Lomonosov, St. Petersburg State University was invited by the Dalai Lama to his residence in the foothills of Tibet, in the city of Dharamsala. After learning after this event that the Dalai Lama is ready to cooperate with scientists in the framework of joint research into the altered states of consciousness of monks using traditional scientific methods, we also became interested in this, based on our “cosmic” interests, and were included in the research group.
Researcher monks master the science equipment
We asked the Dalai Lama to give us the opportunity to study the electrical activity of the brain of the monks during various types of meditation. In turn, the Dalai Lama proposed to investigate the phenomenon of “post-mortem meditation”, not studied by Western science, tukdam, when, after ascertaining death, the body of a monk does not decompose for weeks.
More than a hundred monks, the most experienced practitioners, were involved in the study of meditation. The decision to organize a group of research monks radically influenced the fate of the project. To do this, we interviewed young monks who were willing and recommended to join the group and selected candidates - one from each monastery, eight people in total.
They were invited for training and general familiarization with physiological research methods at Moscow State University, the Institute of the Brain, the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology, and at the IBMP to listen to a series of lectures on the study of the brain supply of higher nervous activity and consciousness and to master practical skills of working in a laboratory. In addition, thematic excursions were held for them in these institutes to get acquainted with the current level of work in psychophysiological laboratories.
As it later became clear, it was this visit of the monks that largely determined the success of the project. For the first time real scientific divisions were organized in Buddhist monasteries and a new "specialty" appeared - a monk-researcher. It was on their shoulders that all the routine work in the laboratory subsequently fell. The significance of this event cannot be overestimated. If before him scientific work was mainly carried out by Western visitors with the occasional use of monks as assistants, now there is a real laboratory with a staffed permanent staff.
This, in particular, made it possible to solve the very difficult problems that every Western researcher faces in a Buddhist monastery, especially in a situation of border closures. This is the difficulty of contacting the monks, most of whom do not speak English. Many topics are taboo for them. Western researchers do not know etiquette, mental differences, do not understand the hierarchy of values of monks, who, by the way, are not a homogeneous group. They differ in the level and length of meditative experience.
The most interesting for us were the practices of induction of unusual, altered states of consciousness. Such states were achieved by many hours of meditation, sensory deprivation, monotony, deep concentration. It was already closer to the states of consciousness of interest to us, thanks to with which a person can change the metabolic rate, introduce himself into certain resource states.
In search of a clue
Image above: Personal experience - acquaintance with the stand for simulating the effects of weightlessness by the method of "dry" immersion.
Now we are at the beginning of the journey. But we already know for sure that altered states of consciousness can affect the metabolic rate - both significantly speeding up and slowing it down. Our neuroscientists are trying to find the key to this mechanism. Our task is to reach such a level of understanding of the meditation technologies of Buddhist monks in order to apply them in our scientific research.
We have data on the distribution of brain activity during different types of deep meditation. It can be said that there is already a certain passport of this state. With the help of biofeedback, by presenting a person with an electroencephalography image of an experienced practitioner, we can ask our tester, a future cosmonaut, to try to change his internal state in such a way that it matches the picture of the monk's brain activity.
The idea of such training is not new. It was very clearly demonstrated in a number of films, for example, in The Lawnmower Man.
We are also clearly aware that psychotechnologies alone will not solve the problem of hibernation in long-term space flight. The final working technology will have to include some individual combination of several methods. The task of researchers is to find their best tolerated combination according to the principle of synergy, mutual enhancement of the effect. We associate certain prospects with the use of inhalation of inert gases, by the way, also one of the directions that originated at our institute.
Buddhist monks-researchers at the Institute of Biomedical Problems RAS
But even when all of the above questions are resolved, the most important (probably the most complex) and still not studied will remain: how will such a period of a long stay in a state of low metabolism affect memory, performance, and cognitive abilities? It requires the most serious research. If this issue can be resolved, this will be the biggest breakthrough of recent decades in the implementation of the age-old dream of mankind - the exploration of deep space.
The article was published in the Russian Space magazine.
ROSCOSMOS Press Release: https://www.roscosmos.ru/38604/
Institute for Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBMP RAS): https://www.roscosmos.ru/tag/imbp-ran/
Images, text, Credits: ROSCOSMOS/IBMP RAS/Orbiter.ch Aerospace/Roland Berga.
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