Hibernators thrive under harsh environmental conditions instead of initiating canonical behavioral and physiological responses to promote survival. Although the physiological changes that occur during hibernation have been comprehensively researched, the role of the nervous system in this process remains relatively underexplored. In this Review, we adopt the perspective that the nervous system plays an active, essential role in facilitating and supporting hibernation. Accumulating evidence strongly suggests that the hypothalamus enters a quiescent state in which powerful drives to thermoregulate, eat and drink are suppressed. Similarly, cardiovascular and pulmonary reflexes originating in the brainstem are altered to permit the profoundly slow heart and breathing rates observed during torpor. The mechanisms underlying these changes to the hypothalamus and brainstem are not currently known, but several neuromodulatory systems have been implicated in the induction and maintenance of hibernation. The intersection of these findings with modern neuroscience approaches, such as optogenetics and in vivo calcium imaging, has opened several exciting avenues for hibernation research.

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