Image Credit: Forbes
How would it sound to you if you could be brought back to life decades or even centuries after you die? This refers not to the scenario of an upcoming science-fiction novel, but to the science of cryonics.
Cryonics is the practice of preserving human corpses in extremely low temperatures with the hope that reviving them will be possible in the future. A corpse that is preserved in this state is said to be in cryonic suspension.
According to Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a US organisation which researches and performs cryonics, “cryonics is a belief that no one is really dead until the information content of the brain is lost, and that low temperatures can prevent this loss”.
To make sure that irreversible damage is not caused to the brain, tissues, and vital organs, an emergency response team steps into action immediately after the individual is declared clinically dead. Then, their body is stabilised to ensure that enough oxygen and blood is supplied to the brain to preserve minimal function. The person's body is packed in ice and injected with heparin to protect their blood from clotting. Glycerol-based chemicals are used as cryoprotectants replacing water which is removed from the person’s cells, also preventing ice formation during cryopreservation. The body is then cooled on dry ice until it reaches a temperature of -130°C. Finally, the body is placed in a large metal tank which is filled with liquid nitrogen and is preserved at a temperature of around −196°C.
The first body to be cryogenically frozen was that of Dr James Bed-ford in 1967. Currently, it is estimated that around 350 people worldwide are in cryonic suspension. The current cost of cryonic preservation ranges from 28,000 to 200,000 US dollars. Some patients opt to cryogenically preserve just their brain, a process known as neuropreservation, to minimise costs.
However, cryonics has been met with scepticism from the scientific community, and some scientists have even called cryonics a pseudoscience and quackery. William T. Jarvis, the co-founder of the US-based National Council Against Health Fraud, said that “cryonics might be a suitable subject for scientific research, but marketing an unproven method to the public is quackery”.
Others have said that it is too early to know whether cryonics providers room for valid scientific research and whether it will manage to bring people back to life in the future.
Dr João Pedro de Magalhães, a researcher at the University of Liverpool and co-ordinator of the UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Research Network, argued that we should not underestimate future technological developments. “If you went back 100 years ago and told everyone that in the future you would have all of human knowledge in a small device you carry around in your pocket no one would believe you.”
Cryonics UK, a non-profit organisation, says it has not been proven that cryopreservation can work and it remains a personal choice for people to decide what they wish to happen to their bodies after they die. However, Cryonics UK does not have the necessary facilities for cryopreservation so those looking to be cryogenically preserved must register with cryonics organisations in the US or Russia.
Various problems exist, however, which might make the revival of cryogenically preserved people impossible. Scientists must find a way to get frozen humans back up to liveable temperatures without failing their system. Even if scientists manage to prevent crystal formation during cooling, crystals will always form during the warm-up process and it must be that all parts of the human body are, at the same time, brought up to temperature.
There are also financial problems for cryonics businesses and organisations. Many cryonics organisations from the 1960s and 1970s went bankrupt. In fact, as of 2018, all but one of the pre-1980s cryonics companies went out of business and had to have their stored corpses defrosted and disposed of.
The truth is, cryonics in its current form cannot work. This does not mean that cryopreservation has no place in science. Barry Fuller, a surgical science and low-temperature professor at University College London has noted that cryopreservation allows us to store living cells at ultra-low temperatures almost indefinitely, stressing its many useful applications in day-to-day medicine.
In regard to cryonics, however, he added that “at the moment, we have no objective evidence that a whole human body can survive cryopreservation with cells which will function after rearming . . . At the moment, we cannot achieve that”