300 human bodies currently rest in liquid nitrogen chambers in Arizona, Michigan, and Moscow, where scientists aim to revive them in the future. Though this sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, it happens to be a reality; it’s what people have put their trust and fortunes into. This practice of preserving living cells, tissues, organs, and whole bodies by storing them at extremely low temperatures is known as Cryonics. To date, 3000 living people have arranged to join the 300 deceased upon what cryonicists call “deanimation”- a fancy word for death.
We don’t have to be scientists to know that humans are not designed to be frozen and defrosted. Normally when cells freeze, ice crystals form and break down the cell. So, in theory, when our bodies are frozen and subsequently thawed, the body is reduced into a pile of mush. How exactly does cryopreservation work? First, patients are placed in an ice bath while a ventilation mask simultaneously provides oxygen to the body. Blood flow is maintained via automated CPR and the infusion of anticoagulants into the blood . Next, the body undergoes a process called vitrification, where the bodily fluids are replaced with cryo-protectants that serve as antifreeze. In this way, when the body is slowly cooled with liquid nitrogen to below -200 degrees Celsius, it hardens without forming the cell-damaging ice crystals. Some people choose to only have their heads preserved. This is based on the assumption that the information stored in the brain is enough for a person to live again, and that a new body can be cloned or regenerated with technology thought to exist in the future.
The premise behind cryopreservation is that technology is continually advancing, and the practice of storing bodies is a way of bridging current and future medicine. This advancement will supposedly allow the treatment or even elimination of diseases that killed patients, hopefully giving them a new chance at life. Though this is the motivating factor for some people, others are simply curious about what the future holds.
But is immortality a scientific possibility? Some cryo-biologists including the president and CEO of Alcor, the Cryonics/ Life Extension Foundation, believe so. On the other hand, some think eternal life is far from realistic. Within the scientific community, there tends to be a divide on the topic of cryonics , specifically in regards to the reanimation of the brain. Some neuroscientists argue that the reanimation of this vital organ is within the realm of physical possibility. Others, such as Clive Coen, a professor of neuroscience at King’s College London, argue that due to its density, the brain is very hard to infiltrate with antifreeze agents. Not infusing the brain with cryopreservative agents will result in cell death. However, getting the antifreeze in every nook and cranny of the brain will also result in the exact kind of damage that the technique is designed to avoid, especially since the brain is constantly protecting itself from external agents through a highly selective barrier. Coen argues that even if this was a possibility, then by the time the cryonic team arrives to the dying patient’s bed, the few seconds of hypoxic/anoxic conditions (little-to-no oxygen) will inevitably lead to brain damage. Even if the brain does manage to survive, it is unclear whether memory and personality will remain in tact. Medicine and science have not reached a stage in which organs are successfully cryopreserved, so preserving a whole body, or solely the head, is a challenge.
Cryonic companies act on the human desire for immortality and eternal youth. Though only a few people have bought into this fantasy, more and more people are lining up for their chance to be preserved- even if it does come at the cost of $200,000 . Furthermore, as previously mentioned, there are some who are simply enticed by the future and the promise it holds. Despite these dreams, the big problem with cryonics is that it is a process that is untestable. Perhaps, one day, the technology to revive these frozen people will exist, and the large sums of money put into the process will be worth every penny. For now, the dream of living forever is reserved for our favourite sci-fi films and fantasy stories- where even there, never-ending life is not without its drawbacks.