Summary: Cryonics has long been a non-starter due to technical limitations. A week-old radical proposal by a Russian cryonics firm to freeze people before death, combined with technological advances in cryopreservation are shaking up the cryonics industry. When will cryonics be ready for prime time? [This article has been updated on 12/2/2017 and first appeared on LongevityFacts. For weekly articles, follow us on Reddit | Google+ | Facebook. Author: Brady Hartman.]
Google’s most famous technologist, Ray Kurzweil, has signed up for cryonics, saying:
“My primary strategy for living through the 21st century and beyond is not to die”
However, if plan ‘A’ doesn’t work out, Kurzweil, has opted to have his body cryogenically preserved at Alcor’s modern cryonics facility in Scottsdale.
Even leading lifespan extension advocate Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation has signed up for cryonics and is on Alcor’s list of future guests. In fact, a slew of famous people, many of them transhumanists, have signed up to have their bodies frozen shortly after death.
What is Cryonics?
Cryonics comes from the Greek word for cold and describes the freezing of bodies or tissues with the hope of resuscitation at some future date. The idea of cryopreservation of humans was first proposed in the 1960s by professor Robert Ettinger, in the book called “The Prospect of Immortality.”
Ettinger argued that death could be a reversible process. Professor Ettinger started the Cryonics Institute (CI) in Michigan where his body and those of his mother and his first and second wives now reside in metal flasks called dewars kept at −196 °C.
Moreover, people are using cryonics for more than just the preservation of human bodies. CI’s website states that they, “specialize in full-body cryo-preservation of humans and pets, DNA & tissue storage.”
People are Warming up to Cryonics
While cryonics has never become mainstream, the number of people signing up for cryopreservation is steadily increasing each year. There are now several hundred cryogenically frozen people in the US and dozens in Russia. Among the living, a few thousand people have signed up for cryopreservation, and have already made a down payment on a shot at immortality.
The concept is simple: preserve the body in a pristine condition until a future time when medical science has developed a cure for whatever killed you, at which point your corpse is thawed and reanimated. As the Alcor website states,
“Calling someone ‘dead’ is merely medicine’s way of excusing itself from resuscitation problems it cannot fix today.”
Chilling Doubts about Cryonics
The real question, though, is not whether medical science will advance – and clearly, it will – but whether the frozen bodies will be fit enough to bring back to life.
Freezing takes place down to a temperature of below -130°C, typically using liquid nitrogen. Sometimes the whole body, and sometimes just the head, is frozen, with the hopes of reattaching it later. The idea of freezing only the head came about because some people think that long-term memory and therefore self is all that needs to be preserved indefinitely, though this is a far-fetched opinion.
The argument that encourages people to sign up to be cryopreserved is one akin to Pascal’s Wager. And a relatively low cost of earthly insurance versus the priceless prospect of immortality. Pascal’s Wager posited, in ultra-religious 18th Century France, that the small cost of believing in God – a price paid by forgoing sinful pleasures – was worth it in return for the chance of eternal life in heaven.
Legal Restrictions on Cryonics
There are lots of legal issues surrounding cryopreservation. For example, it is easier to have it done in Russia than in the US and is impossible in most European countries. A 14-year-old British girl who died in 2016 was cryopreserved against her father’s wishes.
Cryopreservation is also expensive, costing upwards to a couple of hundred thousands of dollars, and this is generally financed by a life insurance policy.
Skeptics View Cryonics Cooly
If you are skeptical about cryopreservation in its current form, you are correct. The current state of cryonics technology doesn’t allow the safe freezing and defrosting of an entire human being. Researchers have made remarkable advances in freezing smaller tissues, and I believe that as cryonics technology evolves, one day it will significantly extend our lifespans.
Alcor Life Extension Foundation admits that the current methods of reviving cryopreserved people will most likely not be successful. The firm and its current clients are depending on advances in technology, and in particular nanomolecular technology, to make this possible.
If a firm such as Alcor is skeptical, then we should also be.
There are several reasons for the skepticism. Most notably, these are whether human bodies can be successfully unfrozen, and thereby potentially cured, and also whether the operators of the cryonics facilities can be trusted to stay open for the decades necessary to allow medical technology to advance sufficiently to be able to resuscitate its customers.
Most likely, the people who have been cryopreserved up until now will never be successfully revived. However, it is likely that sometime in the future, techniques will be improved and for some people, it will become a viable option.
Warming Up to Advancements in Cryonics
Two advances have made cryonics a little less far-fetched that it once was.
The First Cryonics Advance – Vitrification
When our cells freeze, they fill with ice crystals, which expand and break down cell walls, reducing our tissues to mush once they are thawed.
Vitrification prevents this by replacing the blood of the recently deceased with a mixture of antifreeze-like chemicals and an organ preservation solution. When the mixture is cooled to below -90C, it becomes a glass-like solid. Vitrification turns the tissues into glass-like structures and prevents the formation of damaging ice crystals.
How Does Vitrification Work?
At the time of death, technicians replace the blood of the recently expired with a type of anti-freeze called cryoprotectants. Afterwards, the body is subjected to vitrification.
Without cryoprotectants, cells cannot be revived, as salt concentrations build up during freezing and wreak massive damage, making effective thawing impossible.
Advancements in Cryonics Continue
Attempts to recover large animal models by thawing have consistently failed. However, in the 1990s engineers introduced solutions that successfully achieved vitrification. Unlike freezing without cryoprotectants, vitrification does not produce the salt problem. However, although these cryoprotectants stop cellular damage, they are also somewhat toxic. Furthermore, large organs can develop fractures.
In 2016, McIntyre and Greg Fahy of the cryopreservation company 21st Century Medicine demonstrated that a form of vitrification called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation could preserve a rabbit’s brain in perfect condition when vitrification and freezing at -130°C were combined.
The rabbit’s brain was indeed in perfect condition, at least in maintaining circuitry. However, the gunk involved in preserving it caused chemical crosslinks, a form of macromolecular damage which tangled the molecules, making it impossible to revive the brain.
Dr. Greg Fahy has been the leading source of innovation in the cryonics field. In recent years, the researcher has turned his considerable talents to the task of restoring human thymus function. The thymus is an essential part of our immune system and starts to shrink beginning in our young adulthood. Dr. Fahy hopes he can lengthen our lifespans by rejuvenating the aging thymus and thus put off our visit to a cryonics facility.
Despite the setbacks, researchers continue to successfully freeze and defrost larger and larger tissues. Vitrification has substantially improved the reliability of freezing and thawing embryos, and particularly eggs, used in fertility treatment. As well, the technology works for small pieces of tissue and blood vessels.
Researchers are making advances in the technology, and hope to be able to use the technique on organs at first, and then entire organisms.
The Second Advance in Cryonics
One major drawback to cryonics is that the procedure is legally allowed only after death. Even then, for best results, freezing should ideally be performed within a few minutes of a client’s demise.
A Russian company named KrioRus believes that the best option is to freeze people before death, and already has plans to do so. KrioRus is sidestepping the legal issue by creating a cryopreservation startup called CryoGen in Switzerland, a country where human euthanasia is legal.
If the cryonics company manages to fund their revolutionary ambitions, they plan to buy a building in Switzerland and convert it to a cryopreservation facility. Clients with one foot in the grave could fly in from around the world and be placed in a cryopreservation tank and wait for the day when medical science finds a cure for their otherwise-fatal disease, at which time their body is thawed to go on living.
The Backup Plan to the Backup Plan
Scientists have discovered that our personality, skills, and memories are to some extent defined by the connections between neurons. This discovery has led some futurists to speculate that rather than bringing the actual body back to life, our brains could be uploaded and implanted into a new body or just remain as disembodied holograms – something that has been described as ‘philosophical zombiedom’.
However, many neuroscientists point out that even if scientists could code the astronomical number of connections between the brain’s 100 billion neurons, even this would not capture the full complexity of the human mind.
While technically not an advance in cryonics, per se, mind uploading serves as a backup plan to cryonics.
In other words, brain uploading is the plan ‘B’ for the plan ‘B.’
The Cryonics Business is Heating Up
So, while brain uploading is ways off, those seeking immortality are sticking to cryopreservation. As the demand is growing, cryonics firms are building new state-of-the-art facilities to accommodate even more people. For example, the architect Stephen Valentine is trying to construct an elaborate and impregnable structure in Comfort Texas.
Called the Time Ship, the facility is designed to house hundreds of cryopreserved bodies. Time Ship aspires to be a latter-day Noah’s Ark and plans to preserve a great many things, including human beings, tissues, DNA and many other forms of life. The ambitious project is an expensive one, estimated to cost about $200 million and may never get funded. However, there is plenty of interest in this project, mostly from men who outnumber women three to one in the body count of cryopreservation. As Valentine puts it,
If you’re cremated, you have zippo chance of coming back [as] who you are.
In a nutshell, the people who choose cryopreservation do so despite slim chances of success. Until cryonics technology improves, their chances of success are mighty slim indeed.
Rather than choosing the cryonics option, you would be better off investing your time and money in the more promising life extension strategies currently being tested, such as intermittent rapamycin therapy, the anti-diabetic drug metformin (currently being tested for anti-aging purposes), or the NAD-boosting NMN.
And while many of his ideas are beyond current technology, and other ideas are far-fetched, some of the SENS strategies of Aubrey de Grey hold promise for extending our lifespans, such as the compounds called senolytics, shown to reverse aging in mice.
The new field of anti-aging medicine has given rise to a new breed of researchers called geroscientists. To learn more, watch the two videos; Can We End Aging Forever? and Can These Revolutionary Technologies Beat Aging in Our Lifetimes?
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