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Fact or Fiction?: A Look at Cryonics

Meera Seth's picture

"Who wants to live forever?" —Queen

A British secret agent is cryonically (not cryogenically, as generally understood) frozen in 1967 and defrosted thirty years later in the late 90s for the purpose of battling his archenemy and saving the planet from annihilation. Does such a scenario sound familiar? If it does, it is because this plot is that of the popular film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. While this comedy is based on outlandish and often impossible situations, one might reasonably ask the following question regarding the cryonic freezing of human beings:

Fact or fiction?

In all actuality, a little bit of both. However, many aspects of the aforementioned fictitious scenario are inherently flawed in its conception of the process of cryonics. As former President of the Society for Cryobiology and now critic of cryonics Dr. Arthur Rowe said, "Believing cryonics could reanimate somebody who has been frozen is like believing you can turn a hamburger back into a cow" (1). The basic idea behind the viability of cryonics technology is the possibility of the brain to indeed defrost, so to speak, and for the brain's structure to be preserved without significant damage, allowing one to retain whatever constitutes an individual and some sort of semblance of self.

The process of freezing the body at low temperatures allows for the successful preservation of the body without significant decay to body tissue. However, proving to be a rather significant obstacle, the warming of frozen cells actually results in the death of these cells (1). Successful preservation would involve the remedy of this through the development of more advanced technologies. This is precisely why it is widely accepted by cryonicists that the reanimation that Rowe speaks of will only be achieved after the further growth of nanotechnology. Such nanotechnology would utilize tiny devices to restore cells at the molecular level and repair whatever damage had occurred due to the freezing process (2).

Dr. Ralph Merkle, a member of the board of directors at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonic suspension facility in Arizona and one of three in the United States, has claimed that such nanotechnology would be available within the next 20 to 100 years. He said, "The synapses are still there, the neurons are still there, the dendrites are still there—all present and accounted for. Thus, at some point in the future, a medical technology based on a mature nanotechnology should be able to restore good health with memory and personality intact" (3).

In spite of exorbitant costs, such a proposition has attracted a relatively high number of clients; as of August 2006, Alcor had 809 clients or "patients", as the Foundation refers to them (4). Speaking of costs, Alcor charges a hefty $120,000 for cryonic suspension of the entire body and $50,000 for neurosuspension. Part of these costs can be covered by the client's life insurance policy (3). However, there remains to be a sure guarantee whether such a preservation will work or ever end up paying off.

Nevertheless, the very process of cryonics is a fascinating look at the inner workings of the methods employed by organizations like Alcor. As soon as a client dies, cryonic technicians perform CPR on the corpse to promote blood flow, they place the body in a heart-lung machine where the blood is cooled to 15 degrees Celsius, and then the technicians inject drugs such as calcium channel blockers into the body, which serves to increase blood flow to the heart and other vital organs. When the body reaches negative 10 degrees Celsius, blood is replaced with saline solution to ensure that the body tissue does not shrink or swell and for the preservation of organs. As a final step, the client is placed in silicone oil in order to cool the body, which eventually reaches the final temperature of negative 196 degrees Celsius (2).

All of this sounds like something from a science fiction novel, if not absolutely morbid. Alcor indeed addresses such a concern on their website's FAQ page, when posed with a question suggesting neuropreservation as bad public relations. The text reads, "Neuropreservation is a powerful reminder that cryonics is really about preserving information, not appearances, and that cryonics in all forms still requires distant future technology to succeed. To the extent that neuropreservation educates people about the harsh scientific realities of cryonics, it is good public relations" (5).

In spite of such reassurances, there is no doubt that cryonic preservation is a controversial practice indeed and raises many thorny ethical questions regarding the essence of death and the development of new technologies. Hypothetically speaking, how would former cryonics clients interact with and integrate into their new populations? And in terms of religious implications, how would these newly "reanimated" individuals affect the Judeo-Christian concept of immortality? Furthermore, one might surmise, when is a person really dead? Not only is the end goal of cryonics toying with the idea of death and resurrection, but in a way, it is perhaps forging a form of time travel. Are cryonicists playing God, or are they merely trying to extend the individual's life, as medicine, life support, and other modern technologies attempt to achieve? Before these questions can be definitively answered, in the meantime, cryonicists and organizations such as Alcor remain in business. And keeping them afloat are the numerous people who believe in the marginal possibility of a literal life after death. Austin Powers isn't so farfetched, after all.

Works Cited

(1) Cryonics. Chapter 15.1.

(2) Cryonics: Cheating Death or Just Freezing It?

(3) Wired. Cryonics Over Dead Geeks' Bodies.

(4) Wikipedia. Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

(5) Alcor. Neuropreservation FAQ.


Alex Kinnan's picture

Regarding the religious

Regarding the religious implications, should this sort of thing even work: It has been said that there are no major religious issues here, because the main idea of cryonics is to attempt the preservation of somebody before they are "completely and irrevocably" dead. The implication being that, even after clinical death, there is still enough recoverable stuff in the brain of a subject to technically label them "mostly dead," in Princess Bride-speak.

That is to say, it is not freezing a corpse so much as it is attempting one last heroic method of saving a life. Or something like that. If that's truly what the practitioners of cryonics believe, deep in their heart of hearts, then they are actually following a very Christian path in trying to preserve life.

As far as fish-out-of-water scenarios go: Come on. I think that if cryo-patients can even be rebuilt/resuscitated in the far future, then there will surely be the means to quickly bring them up to speed on the state of the world via direct neural input. Perhaps something along the lines of "The Matrix," but for educational purposes.

This all may indeed turn out to be bunk, but let's not forget that with current technological trends being what they are, it's at least somewhat possible that there are things to be accomplished via the science of, say, 500 years from now, that would seem like pure and unexplainable magic to us now. If all goes well, anyway.

Ultimately, it may well be irrelevant, as too many folk either do not know of cryonics at all or automatically dismiss it as too silly, morbid, or blasphemous to even look into. This means that economies of scale can't drop the pricing to levels where people might risk it; it also means that if or when uninformed politicians attempt to eradicate it out of fear or fundamental disagreement, there won't be enough informed people to stop them. I seem to recall that Alcor itself may even be at risk because of Arizona funeral homes and lawmakers who don't recognise the facility as storing "patients" and not "dead bodies."