A state of hibernation-like torpor has been induced for the first time in a safe, non-invasive and reversible way thanks to ultrasound: the experiment was conducted on mice and rats at Washington University, stimulating the area of the brain that controls the body temperature and metabolism. If the results of the study, published in the journal Nature Metabolism, were also confirmed in humans, they could open up new scenarios, not only for the treatment of serious patients in emergency medicine, but also for astronauts engaged in long space journeys.
Torpor is in fact a physiological state that allows mammals to reduce their metabolism and body temperature to save energy when needed. The mechanism is controlled by the central nervous system, in particular by neurons in the so-called preoptic area of the hypothalamus, which can be activated non-invasively by ultrasound.
The US researchers, led by medical bioengineering expert Hong Chen, demonstrated this thanks to a small helmet-like ultrasound emitter that they made laboratory mice wear. In the experiment, transcranial stimulation lowered body temperature by three degrees for about an hour, reduced heart rate by 47%, and caused the metabolism to burn only fat and not carbohydrates for energy.
The researchers have also discovered that by varying the acoustic pressure and the duration of the ultrasounds it is possible to obtain more or less evident effects: they have therefore developed a technology that controls the ultrasounds thus allowing to keep the animals in a state of torpor for 24 consecutive hours, without side effects.
The technique has also been successfully tested on 12 rats (animals which, unlike mice, do not have a physiological state of torpor), even if in this case the body temperature only dropped by 1-2 degrees on average.
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