Death is the end. The curtain call we can’t avoid. The rolling credits we can’t escape — no matter how enjoyable the show.
But what if there was another way? A way to circumvent seemingly certain biological processes and leverage future medical advancements? For some hopeful humans, there is cryopreservation, also called “cryonics.” Most scientists give this technology the cold shoulder, but it’s impossible to discount the dream: What if corporations have cracked the code to eternal life? Will cryonics work? And if it does, what does it mean for the future of humankind?
The Big Chill
Cryopreservation has a simple premise: Freeze humans immediately after death and keep them frozen until such time as scientists find a cure for their disease — anything from cancer to heart failure to old age. Once a cure is found patients in cryostasis are thawed out, cured and resume their lives, potentially decades or centuries later.
The idea has been around for more than 50 years: As noted by PBS, there’s still a story floating around that after he died, Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen. And who can forget the iconic scenes of Han Solo being frozen in “carbonite” and then resurrected? Sure, lightsabers and Force-wielding Jedi were cool, but so was the idea that humans could (even against their will) be frozen and thawed again.
Sub-Zero Science, Simply Put? Subpar
So how does cryonics work? According to Particle, it starts after patients are declared legally dead. Cryonic technicians drain their blood and replace it with a solution designed to preserve organs, then follow it up with a “cryoprotectant” solution that freezes cells without causing the crystal formation that would damage them when returned to normal temperature. Bodies are then placed in tanks of liquid nitrogen for long-term storage — with the caveat that the nitrogen must be regularly topped up to maintain frozen-human freshness. While the nitrogen freezing process itself doesn’t require electricity or mechanical intervention to keep people frozen, if tanks are left unattended for any length of time, the results could be … unpleasant.
Reactions from the scientific community haven’t been particularly glowing — the typical answer to “will cryonics work” is perhaps best articulated by a 2015 MIT Technology Review piece titled The False Science of Cryonics. As the piece notes, beyond issues of keeping organs and tissues healthy are the issues of recreating human consciousness once terminated by death. Author Michael Hendricks notes that even attempting to reconstruct the brain activity of the biology’s best-understood creature — the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans — would be a daunting task, despite total knowledge of the creature’s genes, cells and synaptic connectivity.
Cold Hard Cash
Despite cold shoulders from the scientific community at large, cryopreservation firms are gaining market ground. According to Business Wire, growth in this vertical is driven by “government investment in the medical sector and increasing deaths caused by incurable disease,” while strict government regulations and the lack of skilled medical personnel represent major challenges. Still, firms like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonics Institute are attracting new customers — Alcor charges $200,000 for the privilege of being iced, while the Cryonics Institute asks for a cool $28,000.
As noted by Forbes, enough people are now spending on cryonics to drive the creation of “revival trusts,” legal documents that set aside funds for the newly deceased, immediately frozen and soon-to-be-resurrected. While some lawyers find the concept ridiculous, others are on board, offering revival trust terms of anywhere from 50 to 200 years.
Beyond scientific skepticism and lack of skilled staff, two large problems persist for cryogenics.
The first comes after we discover cures to incurable diseases: How do frozen humans get back up to livable temperatures again without complete systems failure? It’s a significant issue for two reasons — even if crystal formation is prevented during cooling, crystals almost always form during the warm-up process, and all parts of the human body must be brought up to temperature at the same time, despite differing densities. It’s easy to see the imminent disaster if brains warm up ahead of beating hearts, or limbs thaw out before blood can start pumping, said Inverse.
Han Solo’s unfreezing in “Star Wars” presents a possible option: Super-fast uniform warming that both prevents crystal formation and preserves body functions. The caveat? Current technology is nowhere near the mark.
The second big problem stems from current cryonics procedures: As noted by Science Alert, one very costly cryonics lab is being sued because — despite an alleged contract stating the opposite — they froze only the head of a client and shipped his body back to family members without notification.
Will Cryonics Work?
Short answer: No.
Not in its current form. While it’s possible to cool and indefinitely freeze humans after death, warming them up to receive the cure for their incurable disease will almost inevitably kill them — if they haven’t already been accidentally decapitated. This isn’t to say there’s no market for cold-enhanced technologies: According to the Medical Device Network, cryo technologies are now being tested for use in treating atrial fibrillation (Afib) patients.
If you were looking forward to a frozen future, prepare for a cold dose of reality: Despite a lucrative market, the concept of scientifically sound cryopreservation is dead on arrival.