Understanding Cryonics: Part 1 – Good Science? Or Science Fiction?

In this, the first in a series of feature articles I will be publishing on the topic of cryonics, we will look at the very basics of the technology and dispel many of the common myths regarding the ‘fantasy’ of cryonic suspension and re-animation.

First, to get rid of the most commonly perceived myth, no, Walt Disney was NOT cryonically suspended. In fact, his body (including his head – more on the significance of this later) was cremated and his ashes set to rest at the now infamous Forrest Lawn Cemetery in rural Los Angeles; very close to the final resting place of pop icon Michael Jackson.

Alcor Life Extension Foundation
Alcor Life Extension Foundation public relations manager Paula Lemler looks over storage units which contain liquid hydrogen in Scottsdale, Ariz., Wednesday, July 30, 2003. (AP Photo/Tom Hood)

The most notable person who was cryonically preserved is former baseball legend, Ted Williams. After his death in 2002, his head was surgically removed and preserved using one of the fascinating cryotechnologies called neuro suspension, which we will begin to explore now.

There are two basic types of cryonic suspension: full-body suspension, and suspension of only a subject’s head, commonly referred to as neuro-suspension. The goal of Full-body suspension is typically to revive the subject at a future time, when the affliction which set about their cardiac arrest is cured and it is reasonably deduced that they could regain a seemingly normal life.

The goal of neuro-suspension is to preserve only the brain with the hope that once human cloning technology is perfected and commonplace in our society, the subject’s DNA can be used to clone a new body and that the memories, emotions, and personality of the suspended brain can be placed into the healthy clone.

Sound far fetched? Maybe. But, before we jump to conclusions, we should at least take a much closer look at the science and technology behind cryonics so that we can make an informed and educated opinion on the subject, right? After all, the science is very real and the technology to suspend people does exist and is, in fact, in practice all over the world.

Are those people signing up to be frozen (or worse, decapitated then frozen) all crazy? Are the doctors and scientists that spend and dedicate their lives to this science nuts too?

In order to properly examine the reality of cryonics and all of the elements that go into a successful suspension, we have to understand the legality of the field and the science that drives it. Foremost in this discussion, we must understand that it is against the law to cryonically suspend any human before they are legally dead – and yes, there are (at least from strict legal and medical viewpoints) several different types of death.

Legal death occurs anytime the heart stops. This is an important distinction because there are thousands of people who legally die and are brought back by medical science every day through the use of defibrillators, bypass machines, pacemakers, and even good old fashioned CPR.

Clinical death, or total death, as it is sometimes referred to, does not occur until all brain function stops. This is the point where most medical professionals agree any attempt at resuscitation is futile since irreparable brain damage is likely to have occurred due to a prolonged lack of oxygen and/or blood circulation.

These definitions lay the platform that allows hope for the science of cryonics. The science thrives because it is believed that by properly preserving a human body at or just after the time of legal death, successful reanimation can be achieved, provided no irreversible damage is done to the cells, organs, brain, or nervous system of the subject during suspension. The preservation process, called vitrification within the industry, is the key to having any hope of successful resuscitation.

Because it is so crucial that no physical damage be done to the subject body during vitrification, the subject is not simply dipped into a vat of liquid nitrogen at the time of death. While this would immediately cease all cellular degeneration and preserve the body without further decay, it would not prevent the water content in the body from forming ice crystals which could expand causing catastrophic and irreparable damage to veins, cells, and organs. Therefore, as part of the vitrification process, shortly after a declaration of legal death, doctors immediately begin removing the water from the subject body and replacing it with a glycerol-based chemical, called a cryoprotectant. This ‘human anti-freeze’, has proven far more efficient at preserving the intricacies of the human body during suspension then did the earliest methods used. It is also sadly the reason why the people suspended earliest in the science’s history, are far less likely to ever be successfully revived, and why most scientists and cryobiologists believe any attempts at future revivals will be done on a last in, first out basis. Not because a longer period of suspension would be any more detrimental to the revival efforts, but because earlier subjects were not preserved using the methods now known to prevent crystallization during suspension and therefore have much less chance of being revived without fatally catastrophic physical damage being done to the body.

Now that we know what cryonics is, what it hopes to accomplish, and how a subject is prepared, my next article will focus on the process of vitrification and the storage of the subjects. The third article in this series will detail the storage facilities themselves, as well as the future of nanotechnology and how it is expected to revolutionize the prospect of revivals. The forth and possibly final article in this series, will recap what we know, highlight any other potential future breakthroughs in the science or the technology that drives it, and divulge when the first human revivals might be realistically expected. I hope you’ll join me for each of them as we explore this fascinating science and what miraculous possibilities successful cryonics could unleash for mankind.

About the author..

Dorian Lassiter
Dorian Lassiter is the author of numerous articles, short stories and suspense novels. He is the divorced, 39-year-old father of 3, and…

Understanding Cryonics: Part 2 – Vitrification & Storage

Article first published at Technorati.com

In part 1 of ‘Understanding Cryonics’, we took a brief look at the science and technology behind freezing the recently dead with the hope of reviving them at a future time. As I learned while researching this piece, and as I hope you gathered as well, the theory of it does hold some logical promise. At first, I was especially resistant to the concept of people signing up to be decapitated immediately after death and having only their heads preserved until cloning becomes as commonplace as open heart surgery. But, after pondering it for a bit, this method of preservation actually began to make even more sense to me then whole body suspension. I mean, why go through all of that, wait to have cancer cured, only to come back into a 70-year-old body that’s likely to have something else go fatally wrong with it at any time? So I rationalized that at least until I could be cloned into a younger, healthy, vibrant body, why bother coming back at all? And if it never happens, oh well, I mean I’m already dead, right? So what if it takes a few more years in limbo to be able to come back with a full life to look forward to, instead of just buying a few more years?

Alcor Life Extension Foundation
Alcor Life Extension Foundation public relations manager Paula Lemler looks over storage units which contain liquid hydrogen at the cryogenics lab in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Tom Hood)

The term vitrification means many things to many different schools of science (I know, I Googled it). For the purposes of cryonics, vitrification means simply the process of preparing a subject to withstand temperatures as low as -130 degrees Celsius (-202 F) and to prevent the formation of ice crystals in a suspended body at those temperatures. Most commonly used today is a glycerol-based solvent which is inserted into the subject body to replace the water which would freeze when flash frozen and destroy tissue, cells and organs, making the subject body unrecoverable. The downside is, this glycerol-based solvent does not work in preserving complete organs. There is a company, however who has revolutionized a proprietary cocktail which has already been successful in vitrifying a rabbit kidney, cry suspending that kidney to -135C, rewarming it, and transplanting it into a healthy rabbit. That rabbit lives on and is quite healthy to this day.

So what exactly happens to a cryo-subject once their heart stops? I thought you’d never ask! An emergency response team of skilled cryo technicians from whichever cryo facility the subject signed on with rushes to the recently deceased and begins the preliminary vitrification process. At this stage, they maintain oxygen and blood flow through the body (simulating life support) until the body can be brought to the cryo facility for complete vitrification. The body is packed in ice and injected with large doses of heparin (an anticoagulant) which prevents the blood from clotting while in transport. A team of skilled cry biologists is waiting once the team arrives at the facility with the new subject and they commence the complete vitrification process, preparing the body for storage.

The vitrification procedure takes about four hours as all of the water is delicately removed from the subject body and replaced with glycerol-based cryoprotectant. Once that process is complete, the body is cooled on a bed of dry ice until it’s core temperature reaches a balmy -130C (-202 F), thereby completing the vitrification process. Next, the subject (either whole body, or just the head) are placed into an individual container which is then lowered into a bigger stainless steel tank upside down, Bodies are placed in the cryo tanks upside down in the even the tank leaks, the brain will remain protected longest.

Neurosuspension clients are simply set to rest at the very bottom of the tanks, which hare filled with liquid nitrogen at a temperature of about -196 C (-320 F) for long-term storage and preservation. Additional liquid nitrogen is occasionally added to replace the minute quantities that are lost due to evaporation. Each of the large Stainless steel tanks is capable of supporting 4 whole-body suspension subjects, and 6 neurosuspension subjects simultaneously.

As you might have imagined by now, subscribing to a cryo facility isn’t a cheap undertaking. Some facilities used to charge a monthly fee of about $400, but over time, family members die, or forget, or estates and trusts dry up, leaving the facility to hold the bag for the rest of…well…for a very long time. As a result, most facilities now charge a flat rate of around $200,000 for a whole body suspension and about $50,000 to preserve only the head and brain. A $500 annual membership is also required during the life of the subject at many such facilities to offset administrative costs associated with being ready for the subject’s legal death. Additional fees are also incurred depending on where the subject is at the time of legal death, and how far the emergency response team needs to travel to retrieve the body and transport it to the storage facility.

Hopefully, we all now have a better understanding of the vitrification and storage processes that go into the two types of cryosuspensions, as well as a general idea of the fees that are involved for anyone who is interested in being preserved. In segment 3 of this series, we will explore the inner workings of some of the more notable cryo-storage facilities in The United States. For you bean counters out there who just must always be crunching the numbers, we will also endeavor to ascertain how much time, effort and expense that goes into the daily operation of such a facility, despite the fact that the residents aren’t exactly screaming for extra blankets or a fresh bedpan.

About the author..

Dorian Lassiter
Dorian Lassiter is the author of numerous articles, short stories and suspense novels. He is the divorced, 39-year-old father of 3, and…