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Freezing Lazarus: The Cryonics of Eternal Life

Photo courtesy of Alcor

This bigfoot Dewar is custom designed to contain four wholebody patients and six neuropatients immersed in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Celsius. Photo courtesy Alcor

Want to live forever? You’re not alone. For as long as we humans have contemplated our own mortality, the dream of eternal life has not been far behind. We see it reflected in our mythologies, religions, and cultural traditions, whether through a fountain of youth or an immortal soul in heaven. But the dream of cheating death has recently made the jump from superstition to science. Welcome to the world of cryopreservation.

Cryonics is the preservation of a body at low temperatures following legal “death,” with the expectation that future technologies will allow the resuscitation of the individual. The technique has reached the popular imagination through a mix of Hollywood portrayals (e.g. Austin Powers) and urban legends (sorry, but Walt Disney was actually cremated). Singularity enthusiasts hope that death will be but a long nap, and dream they might awaken to a futuristic afterlife here on Earth. But how much of this is science, how much is hype, and how much is faith? To find out, we’ve surveyed the landscape of cryonics today.

The logic of cryopreservation goes something like this. The medical definition of “death” has changed throughout history as new technologies became available. A century ago, people were considered dead if their heart had stopped beating. Today, lives are routinely saved through the use of a defibrillator shortly after a heart attack, even after a few minutes of cardiac arrest. Cancer was once a death sentence, and now people survive it regularly.  How we define death is a function of the technology at our disposal.

Given the exponential rate of modern scientific innovation, cryonics suggests that new technologies may soon be available that can resurrect an individual considered “dead” by today’s standards. Because our personalities and memories have chemical foundations in the brain, they can hypothetically be preserved in the body, so long as neural tissue does not degenerate (as we’ll see, that might be a logical jump). One way of preserving tissue is to store it at extremely low temperatures, effectively grinding your molecular chemistry to a halt. To put it bluntly, the cold keeps your body from rotting. But, as every high school student knows, your body is mostly water, which expands when frozen. This is where a process called vitrification enters the picture.

Cryonics patients are preserved in vats of liquid nitrogen cooled to temperatures below -200°F. Because ice crystals can damage cells as they form, the water that fills our cells must be partially replaced before the body is cooled. Chemicals solutions called cryoprotectants are circulated through the patient’s body, ultimately reaching a concentration greater than 50%. As the body is cooled, the cryoprotectants allow tissues to reach a glass-like solid state that is relatively free of ice crystals, thus preserving cellular integrity.

A central expectation of cryonics is that in the future, technologies will be available which allow us to resurrect cryopreserved bodies. The doctors who revive you will have to accomplish a number of tasks not yet within the scope of medical science (though suggested by advances in nanotechnology, stem cell research, and other topics we cover here at Singularity Hub). The vitrification process must be undone, restoring the cells of your body to their natural chemistry. The cause of your death must be reversed, repaired, or replaced, so that your body is more hospitable to life than when you died.  You wouldn’t want to be resurrected just to die all over again, right?

Some cryonics companies offer a less expensive “neuro option,” in which the head alone is cryopreserved; other companies avoid this altogether, wary of the stigma that frozen severed heads might bring to the public imagination.  Still, as the lines between biological and artificial body parts continue to blur, it is conceivable that your brain alone – containing your personality and memories – could be revived and attached to another body (whether organic, artificial, or some combination thereof). If you’ve ever wanted to customize your body, here might be your chance.

Modern cryonics was born in 1962, when Robert Ettinger laid down its theoretical foundations in his book, The Prospect of Immortality. He went on to found the Cryonics Institute (CI), a nonprofit corporation in Michigan that remains a cryopreservation industry leader, as well as the Immortalist Society, an affiliate organization devoted to research and education about cryonics. The late sixties and early seventies saw a boom in both organizations and businesses devoted to cryonics. In 1967, the Cryonics Society of California (CSC) cryopreserved the first individual in human history, Dr. James Bedford. Alcor Life Extension Foundation, one of the companies at the forefront of cryonics today, was founded shortly thereafter in 1972.

In 1979, scandal struck the industry when it was revealed that nine individuals being preserved by CSC in Chatsworth, CA had thawed due to the financial hardships. The subsequent lawsuit and scandal – coined the “Chatsworth disaster” – brought bad publicity and slowed industry growth for a number of years. These early mistakes brought in an era of tighter financial control within cryonics companies, and nowadays each patient’s dues are carefully managed to ensure the security of their preservation.

Photo courtesy of Alcor

A neuropatient, previously installed in a small cylindrical container, being lowered into liquid nitrogen vat. Photo courtesy Alcor

So how many people have undergone the deep freeze? Today, Alcor and the Cryonics Institute are the leading companies in the field. As of this month, Alcor has 85 patients, with another 888 living members signed up for cryopreservation upon their legal death. The Cryonics Institute houses 91 patients, 58 pets, and 785 living members.

One of the central ambiguities of cryonic technology – and an issue of careful rhetoric for its companies – is the question of how long after legal death a body needs to be vitrified. Immediate cooling is certainly ideal (Alcor suggests within fifteen minutes) as the cryoprotectants can preserve the body best within this window of time. While it would arguably be most beneficial to begin cooling the patient before legal death, current laws in the United States do not allow preservation procedures to begin until afterward.  Shucks.

The upward time limit is difficult to determine, as the burden of reversing injury and resurrecting individuals still lies on undeveloped technology. If we can assume that 2 weeks is too long, the question still remains: When does dead mean dead? Even if our current standards are too conservative (legal death means zero brain activity, with the heart and lungs stopped), what are the limits of these hypothetical technologies upon which the cryonic dream is founded?  Can they resurrect Lincoln? Or, more to the point, if I’ve been dead for 24 hours, am I still a viable cryonics customer?

Needless to say, the earlier, the better. Because of this, many cryonics companies consult with standby companies like Suspended Animation, Inc. For an additional fee, technicians will begin cooling your body immediately after your death. You will be maintained at a low temperature as you are transported to the facility where cryopreservation procedures will commence. Many companies offer packages that include standby support as part of the preservation fee.

So how much does cryopreservation cost? It depends on the options and the company. Most companies suggest that individuals pay through their life insurance policy, though direct payment is also accepted. The Cryonics Institute has introductory plans that range from $28,000 to $35,000 in addition to membership fees (about $120 annually). A full package which includes standby support runs around $100,000, though CI recommends that its patients keep a life insurance policy of $200,000 in case of future financial instability. Alcor requires a minimum insurance policy of $150,000 for whole body preservation, and a policy of $80,000 for neuropreservation alone. The cost of life insurance, of course, is determined by your health, lifestyle, and so on.

The biggest leap of faith surrounding cryonic preservation – and the greatest omission on the part of its proponents – is the sticky question of consciousness. It is generally accepted that your perceptions, cognitions and personality have biological foundations in the brain, but are these phenomena reducible to the three pounds of meat in your skull? It doesn’t take the deus ex machina of a metaphysical soul to cast some doubt on this assumption. Debates over subjective experience and consciousness are at the forefront of neuroscience and philosophy today, simply because they are not well understood.  The idea that your brain can be “rebooted,” your existential being intact, is by no means a given.  Until we better understand how consciousness emerges from matter, we cannot know whether it is even theoretically retrievable, futuristic technology or not.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Moral debates over cryonic preservation are wide-ranging indeed, from religious objections to questions of its environmental sustainability. Moral queries aside, the expectation of eternal life is no guarantee, as many cryonics companies recognize. Any number of unforeseen circumstances can interfere with your eternal life: war, political upheaval, environmental disasters, or (perhaps a more timely scenario) financial collapse. Can cryonics survive an economic depression? Can it survive peak oil? Any number of unknowns plague the practice, only some of which can be anticipated. To be fair, most cryonics companies are fairly straightforward about the dangers of an indefinite future.

The world of cryonics is an intersection of fascinating science and – paradoxically – a tremendous amount of faith. The expectations and projections at its core are not easily guaranteed, but neither are they easily refuted. “The future” looms over the entire enterprise and places the rhetoric of its proponents and critics alike in a space of fundamental uncertainty. But human hopes and dreams have always taken place on this sort of limbo, the gap between our knowledge and our imagination. Whether cryonics can reach its goals remains to be seen, and the debates will rage as the future unfolds. Some of us will sign up, cool down, and wait.

As for me? What can I say, I’m old-fashioned.

Here’s a short feature on cryonics by ABC News:

An excellent 50-minute feature by National Geographic on cryonics is also available:

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11 comments

  • Nick says:

    If evolution *is* true, consciousness must be a physical phenomenon; or everything is consciousness, and perhaps illusive – if consciousness did not evolve it was present at the birth of DNA and before, correct?

  • Odin Khriswill says:

    I don’t think that conciousness is a tangible thing, or something that is just “in” everything. I think it is something that manifests when that perfect combination of senses, memory, and action is present in an organism. Given that, it seems that it will one day become possible to return people from cryopreservation.

  • Quackster says:

    Wasn’t there a story a while back about a monkey that went through cryonics back in the mid-1900′s as an experiment? If I remember clearly, the monkey’s head was removed, frozen and then reattached either to its own body or another monkey’s body. I believe the monkey awoke and survived for an hour before dying. Obviously, the ethics of today would not allow such an experiment, but it does make you think.

  • Mike says:

    No, your thinking of the full body transplant. The monkey survived a few weeks before the immune response killed it. No animal has been brought back to life from temperatures necessary for cryopreservation.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdJGlYOL0r4

  • Life Coach Russ Small says:

    Consciousness is everything and in everything. We are conscious beings even when we are unconscious. Interesting video about the monkey, I didn’t realize that had happened.

  • bgwowk says:

    Re:

    “The idea that your brain can be “rebooted,” your existential being intact, is by no means a given.”

    It may not be a given, but it is a default presumption for the thousands of people who have already survived such rebooting. Brain electrical activity flatlines after about 30 seconds of cardiac arrest, so anyone resuscitated after such an interval has effectively been rebooted. There are other medical examples of ceased electrical activity and subsequent rebooting of the brain, including recovery from barbiturate coma and deep hypothermia. Sometimes hypothermia accompanied by stopping of the heart, lungs and brain is deliberately induced for certain surgical procedures. There is more information about this at

    http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/medicaltimetravel.htm

    Re:

    “legal death means zero brain activity, with the heart and lungs stopped”

    Technically, legal death means that a medical authority has deemed that resuscitation efforts on someone in this state are not appropriate. The described state itself can be reversed with present technology if other problems don’t prevent reversal.

  • Joseph says:

    The Last Will and Testament of
    Joseph M. Graham Jr.
    Apt. 26D
    1701 Ocean Ave.
    Asbury Park, New Jersey 07712 United States
    Social Security Disability Insurance. #

    ————————————————–

    The proposal which requires the least advancement of technology goes like this: the patient’s brain (possibly entire head) is made solid, either by perfusing with (for example) paraffin, or by freezing to liquid nitrogen temperatures. Next, the brain is cut into very thin slices. Each slice is scanned by a computer using very high-resolution instruments (e.g., the electron microscope). The computer uses this data to reconstruct the patient’s brain circuitry in an artificial substrate (probably dedicated brain-simulating hardware). The simulation is activated, and the patient finds herself or himself in a shiny new body.

    This procedure requires relatively modest extensions of current technology. Anatomical reconstruction from serial sections has been done for many years. Currently, only a very tiny piece of tissue can be scanned in this way at the resolution needed for circuit reconstruction, and the process is both slow and labor-intensive. Researchers are currently working to automate the process, increase the speed, and increase the sample size. Eventually these developments should permit the scanning of an entire brain — but there’s still a long way to go to that point (unless, of course, someone starts pouring lots of money into development).

    As a word of caution, it may not be enough to capture just the structure of the neurons and connections; functionally relevant information is undoubtedly contained in, for example, the ratios of chemicals in the synapses and the distribution of ion channels in the cell membrane. Staining techniques will probably permit all relevant variables to be read during the scan, but it’s something to keep in mind.
    1/27/97 . . . . . . . Joe Strout
    ————————————————–

    Its now 2009 And I feel that we could Do all the above without cutting the Brain to get the resolution need to copy the Brain/Mind of ones Brain. Maybe T-Rays or microscope with pico scale.-resolution Laser microtome
    Microtome
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    A microtome is a mechanical instrument used to cut biological specimens into transparent thin sections for microscopic examination. Microtomes use steel, glass, or diamond blades depending upon the specimen being sliced and the desired thickness of the sections being cut. Steel blades are used to prepare sections of animal or plant tissues for light microscopy histology. Glass knives are used to slice sections for light microscopy and to slice very thin sections for electron microscopy. Industrial grade diamond knives are used to slice hard materials such as bone, teeth and plant matter for both light microscopy and for electron microscopy. Gem quality diamond knives are used for slicing thin sections for electron microscopy.

    The most common applications of microtomes are:

    * Traditional histological technique: tissues are hardened by replacing water with paraffin. The tissue is then cut in the microtome at thicknesses varying from 2 to 25 µm (micrometers) thick. From there the tissue can be mounted on a microscope slide, stained with appropriate aqueous dye(s) after prior removal of the paraffin, and examined using a light microscope. See histology for more details.
    * Cryosection: water-rich tissues are hardened by freezing and cut in the frozen state with a freezing microtome or microtome-cryostat; sections are stained and examined with a light microscope. This technique is much faster than traditional histology (5 minutes vs 16 hours) and is used in conjunction with medical procedures to achieve a quick diagnosis. Cryosections can also be used in immunohistochemistry as freezing tissue stops degradation of tissue faster than using a fixative and does not alter or mask its chemical composition as much.
    * Electron microscopy: after embedding tissues in epoxy resin, a microtome equipped with a glass or gem grade diamond knife is used to cut very thin sections (typically 60 to 100 nanometers). Sections are stained with an aqueous solution of an appropriate heavy metal salt and examined with a transmission electron microscope. This instrument is often called an ultramicrotome. The ultramicrotome is also used with its glass knife or an industrial grade diamond knife to cut survey sections prior to thin sectioning. These survey sections are generally 0.5 to 1 micrometer thick and are mounted on a glass slide and stained to locate areas of interest under a light microscope prior to thin sectioning for the TEM. Thin sectioning for the TEM is often done with a gem quality diamond knife.
    * Botanical microtomy: hard materials like wood, bone and leather require a sledge microtome. These microtomes have heavier blades and cannot cut as thin as a regular microtome.
    * Spectroscopy, especially FTIR or infra-red spectroscopy, where thin polymer sections are needed in order that the infra-red beam will penetrate the sample under examination. It is normal to cut samples to between 20 and 100 micrometres in thickness. For more detailed analysis of much smaller areas in a thin section, FTIR microscopy can be used for sample inspection.

    Microtome blades are extremely sharp, and should be handled with great care. Safety precautions should be taken in order to avoid any contact with the cutting edge of the blade. If one should accidentally drop NEVER try to catch it with the unprotected hand!

    A recent development is the laser microtome, which cuts with a femtosecond laser instead of a mechanical knife. This method is contact-free and does not require sample preparation techniques. The laser microtome has the ability to slice almost every tissue in its native state. Depending on the material being processed, slice thicknesses of 10 to 100 µm are feasible.

    Microtome – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    en.wikipedia.org

    ————————————————–

    microscopy enters the picometer scale
    July 24th, 2008 in Physics / Physics
    EnlargeUsing electron microscope methods of a hitherto unknown accuracy,
    scientists from Forschungszentrum Juelich have succeeded in locally
    demonstrating polarization in the ferroelectric PbZr0.2Ti0.8O3 and measuring it
    atom by atom. The broken line forms the boundary of two areas with different
    electrical polarization marked by the arrows. This is due to the fact that the
    atoms (Pb: lead; Z: zircon; Ti: titanium; O: oxygen) are displaced from their
    positions and therefore their electrical charges cannot compensate for each
    other. On the left, the oxygen atoms are displaced 38 pm downwards, and on the
    right to the same degree upwards out of the zircon/titanium atomic row. This row
    itself is displaced vertically by 10 pm from the center line between the lead
    atoms. In order to write information in applications for data storage, the
    boundary between these two areas of different polarization directions is
    displaced to the left or to the right so that only one polarization direction
    exists in the material. Image: Forschungszentrum Juelich
    Jülich scientists have succeeded in precisely measuring atomic spacings down to
    a few picometres using new methods in ultrahigh-resolution electron microscopy.
    This makes it possible to find out decisive parameters determining the physical
    properties of materials directly on an atomic level in a microscope. Knut Urban
    from Forschungszentrum Jülich, a member of the Helmholtz Association, reports on
    this in the latest issue (25 July) of the scientific high-impact journal
    Science.
    Progress in research in the area of physics is very frequently connected to an
    increase in the accuracy of measurements, which help researchers to track
    natural phenomena. With the aid of new methods in electron optics, researchers
    were able to microscopically measure atomic displacements precisely to a few
    picometres. A picometre corresponds to a billionth of a millimetre a distance
    that is one hundred times smaller than the diameter of an atom.
    This is one of the highlights that Knut Urban, director of the Ernst
    Ruska-Centre in Jülich, reports on in Science as part of a review of ten years
    of electron microscopy with aberration-corrected lenses.
    Jülich scientists investigated, for example, the configuration of atoms in
    orthogonal grain boundaries of the oxide superconductor YBa2Cu3O7. These atoms
    mark the boundary between two areas of the crystalline material with atomic
    structures that are tilted at an angle of exactly 90° to each other. From
    microscopic images taken under different conditions, the physicists succeeded in
    using computers to calculate the quantum-mechanical wave function of the
    electrons, which served as a basis for determining the exact position of the
    atoms.
    In doing so, it became apparent that the relatively heavy atomic species barium,
    copper and yttrium are systematically displaced a few picometres from their
    ideal position in the grain boundary and that the leighter oxygen atoms follow
    this displacement. This provides an explanation for the attenuation of
    superconducting properties, which can be observed when electric current flows
    over such a grain boundary. This phenomenon is undesired if the superconductor
    is intended to be used for a loss-free current transport. However, it is useful
    for the construction of so-called SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference
    devices), which exploit the magnetic field dependency of this disturbance to
    measure smallest magnetic fields, for example, to measure brain waves
    (magnetoencephalography).
    Displacements of a few picometres decide on a whole number of physical
    properties, which are of eminent importance for technology. Another example is
    the ferroelectricity of titanates materials. Here, the electrical charges of the
    individual types of atoms inside the building blocks of crystals, the unit
    cells, cannot fully compensate for each other as they are not arranged in the
    necessary symmetry.
    Therefore, electric dipoles are formed inside the unit cells, which add up over
    a larger crystal area to form the so-called polarisation. This is used to write
    information bits. An example is PbZr0.2Ti0.8O3 which is used in chip cards for
    data storage. With the aid of new electron optical methods, atomic displacements
    can be measured atom by atom thus making it possible to determine local
    polarisation for the first time.
    Knut Urban explains: “This is the beginning of a new physics of materials which
    enables researchers to determine physical parameters and properties in the nano
    range through highly precise measurements of the atomic spacings. This will also
    provide clues on how these properties may be manipulated in order to gain new
    functions and better functional performance.”
    Source: Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

    ————————————————–

    I want to copy My Brain matter and put every scan into a Data Base’

    Joseph M. Graham Jr.

    I hope someone will set this up for Me.
    Because I cant

  • joseph says:

    OH and the Data Base should Be a Holographic Data Base.

  • scott says:

    The problem with that is that it is not you.A completely different hard drive.You will still be dead.

  • Bob Smikth says:

    WHY would medical science waste any precious time on dead people? With so many issues to be covered, including new flu and disease manifestations, regardless of how far medicine as a science advances, 100% of its effort will always be directed at living people. There is absolutely no reason to waste ten seconds on reanimating a dead person…even if they perished in 1962. History is very well documented since that point in time. So shovel in the lime!

  • Bob Smikth says:

    WHY would medical science waste any precious time on dead people? With so many issues to be covered, including new flu and disease manifestations, regardless of how far medicine as a science advances, 100% of its effort will always be directed at living people. There is absolutely no reason to waste ten seconds on reanimating a dead person…even if they perished in 1962. History is very well documented since that point in time. So shovel in the lime!

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