Can humans hibernate As a driver survives for TWO MONTHS trapped without food at -30c, this theory could transform medicine
Few can fully imagine the frozen nightmare that Swedish motorist Peter Skyllberg endured for two months, trapped and slowly dying inside his ice-bound car on a remote track after it became bogged down in snow drifts last December.
As his body temperature plummeted in the Scandinavian winter, he would have fallen ever more deeply into the grip of hypothermia.
The condition would have rendered his frozen brain disoriented and prone to hallucinations in the darkness of his snow-sealed vehicle.
Peter Skyllberg was trapped for two months inside his car. Miraculously, the freezing temperatures and scarce oxygen may actually have saved his life
Thoughts of rescue or escape would have faded as his consciousness slipped away.
And as Skyllberg, 44, lay shivering in his dark, dank tomb in temperatures as low as -30c, the air inside the car would have become ever staler as oxygen levels fell.
Curled up in his sleeping bag, his starving body would have started to shut down, muscle by muscle, organ by organ.
Miraculously, however, the freezing temperatures and scarce oxygen may actually have saved Skyllberg’s life.
The world watched in astonishment as he was pulled from his car on Friday, emaciated, in a torpid state and barely able to talk — but alive.
The story of Skyllberg’s escape from an icy death follows a series of astounding incidents where men, women and even children have survived conditions so cold that they should, by all accounts, have frozen to death.
But these cases have inspired doctors to investigate how such medical miracles occur, and their discoveries are opening up a freezing frontier of medicine.
For far from being deadly, extreme cold could offer a new way to save the lives of people who have suffered heart attacks and strokes. Some experts believe it may even provide a cure for certain cancers.
The circumstances of Skyllberg’s icy incarceration give us clues as to why he survived his ordeal.
When he was found on Friday near the northern town of Umea, just south of the Arctic Circle, he had been snowed into his car since at least December.
As Peter Skyllberg's body temperature plummeted in the Scandinavian winter, he would have fallen ever more deeply into the grip of hypothermia
Although he had no food, he had been able to drink melted snow.
As Dr Ulf Segerberg, the chief medical officer at Norrland’s University Hospital in Umea, explains: ‘Humans can tolerate a month of starvation, so long as they have water to drink.’
But he was also buried deep in snow, and research indicates that conditions inside this freezing, fusty tomb may have set off a ‘hibernation’ response in his body.
Until recently, mainstream medical wisdom has said that the bodies of humans and other primates do not have hibernation mechanisms.
But this has been overturned by experiments at Arizona University in a sealed artificial environment called Biosphere 2, which covers the size of 2 football fields.
Dr Roy Walford has studied what happens to human volunteers living in the Biosphere when the temperature is lowered, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere is reduced and they are deprived of food — conditions mirroring those in Skyllberg’s car.
After several months, Dr Walford found that the volunteers’ blood became better at retaining oxygen, thanks to a drop in levels of a chemical called erythrocyte which releases oxygen into the muscles and organs.
Their heart rate and breathing became sluggish, but they did survive the challenging conditions.
When Walford reported the results of the experiment in a scientific publication, Journals of Gerontology, he noted that the changes were characteristic of those found in hibernating animals.
The ultimate evidence for human hibernation comes from the case of a Japanese man, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi, who suffered an extreme case of hypothermia after being stranded on a snowy mountain for 24 days in 2006.
Uchikoshi, 35, a Japanese office worker, fell down a snowy slope near the city of Kobe and lost consciousness.
As the temperature on the mountain dropped, his body’s survival instincts kicked in.
Dr Shinichi Sato, head of the hospital emergency unit where he was treated, told reporters: ‘He fell into a state similar to hibernation. Many of his organs slowed, but his brain was protected.’
During his 24 days on the mountain, doctors estimated that Uchikoshi’s core temperature had fallen to 22c (as opposed to the normal 37c) but after regaining consciousness in the hospital, Dr Sato reported, Uchikoshi’s brain had made a total recovery.
The miraculous case of Erika Nordby, a chubby-cheeked one-year-old who survived being frozen stiff in 2001, also had doctors scratching their heads.
After wandering outside on a bitterly cold Canadian winter night, little Erika was found hours later lying in the snow wearing only a nappy in temperatures of -20c.
Even though she was clinically dead — her heart stopped beating for more than two hours — the tot survived.
When paramedics arrived, they had trouble putting a tube down her throat because her mouth was frozen shut. Her toes were also frozen together.
But when she was warmed up by an emergency hospital team, a seeming miracle happened: her heart began to beat on its own.
Scans showed that her oxygen-starved brain had swelled a little, but doctors say she now shows no evidence of brain damage.
Again, the frozen conditions that could have killed Erika were actually responsible for saving her, by putting her body and brain into suspended animation.
Another extreme case of survival has inspired doctors to investigate whether putting people into a state of suspended animation could help to save them from the effects of strokes, heart attacks or even cancer.
Dr Anna Bagenholm was skiing off-piste in Norway when she crashed through ice into a flooded gully and was trapped underwater for 40 minutes.
When the 29-year-old was finally pulled from under the ice, she was clinically dead. Her heart had stopped for nearly three hours, and efforts to resuscitate her went on for nine hours.
Doctors say that she was saved by the fact that her body’s vital organs had chilled very quickly.
Her body temperature had plummeted from 37c to 14c. It stopped her heart but protected her brain, because it was so cold that it did not need any oxygen.
She has since made a full recovery and continues to ski the very mountains where she cheated death in 1999.
The case inspired Dr Mark Roth, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, to develop a technique known as ‘hibernation on demand’, which in the near future could be used on humans for medical purposes.
Dr Roth used freezing hydrogen sulphide gas to place mice into a state of artificial hibernation, slowing their cellular activity virtually to a standstill.
Their bodies responded by radically slowing their metabolisms. The animals were left in this state for up to six hours before being revived without any lasting ill effects.
The research could improve cancer therapies. Slowing the body would give doctors longer to identify and treat fast-growing cancer cells.
The technique could also buy time when treating severe blood loss, fevers, heart attacks and strokes.
It even raises the prospect of putting astronauts into suspended animation for voyages lasting many years into deep space, as predicted by science-fiction films such as Alien.
But this isn’t just the stuff of science fiction. Body-cooling techniques are being used in pioneering hospitals around the world.
Doctors are already using induced hypothermia to protect the brains of people who have suffered heart attacks, because it slows down their activity levels.
One study by doctors in Mississippi claims that it can increase the survival rate by up to five times.
And Dutch doctors in Nijmegen, are now using induced hypothermia for patients who have suffered brain injuries in accidents.
It may even help to save the brains of babies who are born suffering from severe epileptic fits, according to neonatal doctors working in Florence.
Peter Skyllberg in his frozen car, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi on his snowy mountain side, Anna Bagenholm crashing through the ice, and little Erika Nordby lost in the snow have perhaps inspired astonishing medical breakthroughs which now hold hope for thousands.