Mice have ‘low power mode’ for their brains

Sleep well! Mice can go into “torpor” more than four times a day to save energy. © Alamy

Could mice help us live forever? The rodents can shut their bodies down to save energy. If researchers can find a way to produce similar states in people, it could extend human life.

What’s happening

The mouse is hungry. It has run out of food, but walking long distances to find more might exhaust the mouse and it could die. Luckily, it can fix the problem. It falls into a deep sleep as though hibernating. This sleep is called “torpor”, and scientists have just discovered how to trigger it.

Find out more

Many birds and mammals, from hummingbirds to lemurs, lower their body temperature and enter a state of deep sleep as a way to survive when times are tough. Some hibernate through winters. Others enter a temporary state known as torpor for hours or days.

Mice usually enter torpor when they run out of food, but researchers have found a way to produce the effect even when the animals are not hungry. They genetically engineered the mice so they could control certain parts of the brain. When one cluster of brain cells was active, even well-fed mice went into the hibernation state.

The team hopes to find a similar “brain switch” in humans. It could be used for operations, pain relief, and even space travel.

Could mice help us live forever?

Some say…

Maybe! This discovery could transform medicine, helping us fight cancer, strokes, and other minor injuries. The switch could also save energy, meaning human life could be extended. At the moment, space travel is limited by how long we live, but being able to go into suspended animation might mean we could explore far more of the Universe.

Others think…

Probably not. Animals have evolved naturally to have this ability, while humans might not have done. We don’t have any proof yet that human brains have a similar function. Even if we did, we would need years of research to find out how to use it safely. It might extend life by making us healthier, but it will not be able to make us live forever.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live forever?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have been in hibernation for 100 years and you wake up again. Write a diary entry describing your first day in the future.

Some People Say...

“We have more to learn from animals than animals have to learn from us.”

Anthony Douglas Williams, animal rights activist

What do you think?

Word Watch

Hibernating
When an animal spends the winter in a very deep sleep without needing extra food or water.
Torpor
A temporary version of hibernation. Mice are just one of hundreds of animals, including bats and birds, that go into torpor.
Genetically engineered
Something that has been altered by changing its DNA, or genetic material.
Cluster
A group of similar things that are close together, sometimes surrounding something.
Space travel
A trip to Mars could take 180 days. If humans could hibernate, they could be protected from the dangers of long journeys in space.
Extended
Made longer.
Suspended animation
When most functions of the body are interrupted temporarily, but the person or animal stays alive.

Subjects

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