According to research conducted at the Duke Lemur Center, lemur hibernation may hold the key to a good night’s rest—or successful inter-planetary travel.
Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Andrew Krystal and his colleagues partnered with the Duke Lemur Center to research sleep and hibernation in fat-tailed dwarf lemurs to discover more about human sleep patterns. The study revealed that lemurs experience REM sleep during hibernation, allowing them to regulate their body temperature.
“Our motivation was to test the hypothesis that sleep plays an important role in regulating the metabolic stores of energy,” Krystal said.
Collaborating with people from the Lemur Center, Krystal administered a electroencephalography test to monitor brainwaves and body temperature during different sleep states.
During hibernation, lemurs spend time in a state of torpor, which is characterized by minimal brain activity.
“They look and feel dead,” said director of the Lemur Center Anne Yoder.
Torpor is a physiological condition that occurs for no more than 24 hours at a time and is not to be confused with the process of hibernation, said Chris Smith, education specialist at the Center. However, during their six to eight month seasonal hibernation period, lemurs mostly exist in this state.
When the lemurs were in a state of torpor, their body temperature fluctuated with changes in environmental temperature.
But the dwarf lemurs also spent hibernation time in REM sleep, during which their body temperature did not fluctuate.
“If you disturb the ability to sleep, you also disturb the ability to maintain body temperature,” said biology professor Peter Klopfer, a researcher on the study.
Krystal wanted to use the lemur study to figure out why we as humans spend so much of our lives asleep—meaning that the study’s conclusions were important because they pointed to a direct connection between sleep and body processes.
Because they spend so much of their lives in a state of torpor, dwarf lemurs manage to conserve more energy than other mammals. Krystal and his team resolved that if torpor could be induced in humans, it could be valuable to the practice of medicine, as well as applied in other ways.
Induced torpor could be useful for medical patients who need transplants—patients’ brains would be shut off to preserve functions while they waited for an organ donor, Smith said.
He said that inducing torpor could also have potential in aerospace travel. Astronauts could put on weight and then be induced into hibernation mode so they would not need much energy or fluids on their way to a different planet.
Krystal said he plans to continue his work with lemurs.
“For us, it was the fortuitous presence of the Lemur Center and the resources of Ann Yoder and her team at the Center that made this research possible,” Krystal said.