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Maurizio Montalbini, cave dwelling sociologist

After spending 235 days in isolation, Maurizio Montalbini emerged from the Grotta Fredda di Acquasanta cave in central Italy. After spending 235 days in isolation, Maurizio Montalbini emerged from the Grotta Fredda di Acquasanta cave in central Italy. (AP/File Photos 2007)
Associated Press / September 21, 2009

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ROME - Italian sociologist Maurizio Montalbini, who spent months dwelling in caves to study how the mind and body cope with complete isolation, has died at 56.

Mr. Montalbini died of a heart attack Saturday while in a mountain hamlet near the central Italian town of Macerata, said Guido Galvagno, a longtime colleague.

Galvagno said the death did not appear connected to Mr. Montalbini’s record-breaking cave stays.

Mr. Montalbini spent a total of two years and eight months underground since he started his experiments in the 1980s, according to a biography on his website.

In 1987 he claimed his first world record after spending 210 days alone in a cave in the Apennine mountains. A year later he led an international team of 14 spelunkers, including three women, to take the world group record with an underground stay of 48 days.

During his endurance experiments Mr. Montalbini subsisted mostly on a high-calorie diet of powdered foods and pills similar to those used by astronauts on space flights. Scientists on the outside monitored him through instruments.

Mr. Montalbini’s biography says his experiments were done in collaboration with NASA and top universities worldwide. They yielded insights on the effects of long-term isolation, including weight loss and changes in the perception of time, and in the sleep and menstrual cycles.

For the sociologist, who worked with drug addicts before turning to spelunking, the experiments were also a personal challenge of willpower and endurance.

“One cannot fight solitude, one must make a friend of it,’’ he said after his 1987 exploit. “I succeeded in doing this. I carried everything inside me for seven months - affections, convictions, ideals.’’

Mr. Montalbini broke his solo cave-sitting record in 1993 by living a year and one day in an underground base built to study the reactions of individuals and crews on simulated space missions.

In his last experiment, which ran through 2006 and 2007, Mr. Montalbini spent 235 days in the base built in the Apennine “Grotta Fredda’’ (Cold Cave).