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Hibernating bears could yield medical gains

Associated Press / February 18, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Hibernating bears set their energy demands on low, but unlike most other animals that take long winter naps, they don’t chill out very much, researchers reported yesterday.

Figuring out how bears cut energy use but keep their body temperature relatively warm could one day have important implications for treating victims of heart attack, stroke, and other conditions, scientists hope.

The body temperature of small hibernating mammals can drop to near freezing. But that is not the case for black bears, according to the new research published in the journal Science. The findings also were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The study’s senior author, Brian M. Barnes of the Institute for Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, noted that after hibernating, black bears don’t suffer the loss of bone and muscle mass that occurs in humans after a long period of inactivity.

He said that if scientists could better understand the mechanisms behind the lower metabolic demand, it might be possible to develop new therapies and medicines for people.

While it would require a lot more research, scientists say, understanding how the process of hibernation works might aid in preventing osteoporosis and muscle atrophy from disuse, possibly allowing doctors one day to place injured, disabled people in a type of suspended or reduced animation until they are healed.