Cryonics is the science of preserving tissues in a frozen state. For cryonic preservation companies, when a person has legally been declared dead they are informed and send a response team to keep the victim’s blood flowing around the body as it is packed in ice. Then, the body is injected with chemicals designed to reduce clotting and damage to the brain.
When the body reaches the cryonics facility, it is cooled until it is just above the point of freezing and then the blood is removed. A fluid is then injected into the body that preserves the organs and the blood vessels are injected with a cryoprotectant solution that attempts to stall the formation of ice crystals in the tissues and organs of the body. At that point, the body is then cooled to -130C. The final step is lowering the body into a tank of liquid nitrogen which preserves the body at -196C.
As of today, roughly 150 people in the US are currently in a cryogenic freeze in liquid nitrogen in the US. Another 80 people have their heads or brains preserved. Right now, over 1,000 people have instructions to cryogenic companies to preserve their bodies after death.
Can Cryogenics Really Work?
Those who believe in the process have three reasons to be hopeful that they can be successfully revived.
– Damage to the brain is limited.
Even though cryogenic companies must wait until the person is legally declared dead, they believe that the damage to their brains will be limited by the quick reaction of the cryogenics companies as long as the oxygen levels are maintained.
– Cooling preserves the cells of the body
The cooling process keeps the cells, tissues and organs of the body intact. Meaning that it is possible to revive them as long as no further degradation takes place.
– Future medicine can cure their ills
Basically, the afflictions that may have caused their demise can be cured by advances in medicine at some point in the future. In fact, some people believe that the aging process itself can be stopped and reversed as well.
The Issues of Cryogenics
There are several issues that may impeded the successful reviving of corpses that have been frozen. One of the most pressing the formation of ice crystals in the body once the temperature has reached -5C. Since the ice is less dense than water, it needs more space and therefore will punch through the cell membranes causing a great deal of damage when they form.
Although there are methods designed to stop the formation of ice crystals, most notably the process of vitrification, there is no proof that is actually can work on human organs. “We know we can successfully vitrify human organs.”, stated noted Cryobiologist Dr. Dayong Gao of the University of Washington in Seattle. “We know we can vitrify very small things like insects and simple tissues like blood vessels. This is because smaller size makes it easier to control cooling and cryoprotectants can be properly diffused.”
However, knowing whether the organs of the bodies that have been frozen in liquid nitrogen is unknown since all of the bodies are still encased in that substance. It would take an autopsy to know whether their organs were still functional and such procedures would undo the purpose of freezing them in the first place.
Biochemist Ken Story from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada has a different point of view, “We have many different organs and we know from research into preserving transplant organs that even if it were possible to successfully cryopreserve them, each would need to be cooled at a different rate and with a different mixture and concentration of cryoprotectants. Even if you only wanted to preserve the brain, it has dozens of different areas, which would need to be cryopreserved using different protocols.”
Freezing is the Easy Part
Even if scientists were able to successfully cryopreserve an entire human body, the matter of bringing them back to life is another challenge altogether. Dr. Gao states, “Even if you manage to limit the damage from cryoprotectants, the question remains of how they would be safely removed.”
Another complication is the brittleness of the body when it has been frozen to -196C. The body could easily be damaged during the stress of warming it back up. The brain in particular with the billions of neurons and thousands of connections is very sensitive to the heating and cooling process.
Furthermore, the bodies that have been preserved are not exactly in tip top shape, having suffered through great illnesses and the aging process which have detrimental effects. While some in the cryogenics field proclaim that nanotechnology may be the answer, there are still many doubts as to if such advanced methods would really work.
The Cost of Cryogenics
The actual cost of cryopreservation depends on how much will be stored. In many cases, patients will pay up to £52,000 to preserve the head while freezing the entire body could be as much as £130,000 due to the difficulties involved. Because of the nature of the service, cryogenics companies require that payments be upfront in nature and not from the survivors. Such payments may also come from life insurance policies where the cryogenics company is the beneficiary.
The Challenges of Cryogenics
Given that a single human cell consists of roughly 50,000 proteins and hundreds of millions of fat molecules, the disruption caused by cryogenic preservation can disrupt the very workings of even the most stout cell. Another issue is the sheer complexity of the brain itself that would need to be repaired from the process so that life could continue.
If the destructive effects of the freezing process could be overcome, the patient may still very well experience a great deal of confusion from the displacement, much like it is speculated that time travel would have a similar effect.
However, cryonics is essentially a belief in the future of the human race and while there are no guarantees, the very idea that humans in the future can revive those suffering from illnesses of today gives hope to those who understand that they will undergo the freezing process after they have passed.