In honor of the upcoming summer blockbuster, Captain America: The First Avenger, I will be devoting the next three days to some of the real-life history, mysteries, and science that underlie the film. For those of you who don’t know, Captain America is a fictional, World War II super-soldier. Based on previews, we know that part of the story involves him being frozen in a block of ice towards the end of the war, only to be revived decades later from a state of suspended animation. Is suspended animation possible? Has anyone ever experienced it?
Surviving Suspended Animation?
On October 7, 2006, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi vanished while climbing Japan’s Mount Rokko with friends. On October 31, rescuers discovered him. His organs had shut down. His body temperature had dropped to 71 degrees Fahrenheit. But despite a reported twenty-four days in the freezing cold without food or water, he still had a pulse.
“He fell into a hypothermic state at a very early stage, which is similar to hibernation. Therefore, his brain functions were protected without being damaged and have now recovered 100%.” ~ Dr. Shinichi Sato
When he was discovered, Uchikoshi’s metabolism was barely active. He was treated for “severe hypothermia, multiple organ failure and blood loss” and remained hospitalized until December 19. But he survived, apparently by entering a state of suspended animation. While astonishing, Uchikoshi’s case is not exactly unique.
Other Cases of Suspended Animation
Here are a few similar cases from the annals of history:
- 1850: In his book, Observations on Trance, James Braid, the so-called “Father of Modern Hypnotism,” discussed an Indian fakir who was buried alive. After several months underground, the fakir was dug up and ultimately regained consciousness.
- 1900: The British Medical Journal ran an article alleging that “a practice closely akin to hibernation is said to be general among Russian peasants in the Pskov Government, where food is scanty to a degree almost equivalent to chronic famine. Not having provisions enough to carry them through the whole year, they adopt the economical expedient of spending one half of it in sleep.”
- 1999: After a skiing accident, Anna Bågenholm found herself trapped under ice for eighty minutes. Surrounded by frigid water, her body temperature dropped to an astonishingly low 56.7 degrees Fahrenheit. After a large medical team saved her life, she was temporarily paralyzed from the ordeal. But since then, she has managed to make a nearly full recovery with no permanent brain damage. Dr. Mads Gilbert reported that: “Her body had time to cool down completely before the heart stopped. Her brain was so cold when the heart stopped that the brain cells needed very little oxygen, so the brain could survive for quite a prolonged time.”
These cases of accidental suspended animation bear resemblance to hibernation, an activity undergone by certain animals during wintertime. Hibernation is characterized by reduced body temperature, minimal cell activity, shallow breathing, and a decreased metabolic rate. It allows animals to survive for days or weeks when food and water are difficult to procure.
Possible Breakthroughs in Suspended Animation?
But is suspended animation just a rare human response to extremely cold conditions? Or can it be induced artificially? Already, physicians use cool temperatures to reduce patient’s metabolisms. Now, many researchers believe that significant breakthroughs in human hibernation are within our grasp.
“If we could discover the genetic and molecular basis for this protection, and for the mechanisms that underlie the reduction in metabolic demand, there is the possibility that we could derive new therapies and medicines to use on humans to prevent osteoporosis, and disuse atrophy of muscle or even to place injured people in a type of suspended or reduced animation until they can be delivered to advanced medical care – extending the golden hour [when medical intervention is most effective] to a golden day or a golden week.” ~ Dr. Brian Barnes
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
The future looks bright. Even as we speak, scientists are hard at work developing drugs and treatments intended to induce suspended animation within people. These things could be used to slow cell expiration, giving physicians more time to treat fatal diseases. They could also be used to help astronauts journey to the far reaches of the universe. Someday soon, the story of Captain America’s suspended animation will no longer be relegated to fiction…it will be a part of life.