What if you could be frozen in time? What if, one day, you could step into a metal tube, and then wake up tens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of years later? Would you do it?
While this possibility is just a fun thought experiment to some, it’s no joke to others.
Real-life labs are dedicated to the preservation of the human body for as long as it takes to figure out the science of resuscitation, and they're offering this service to the paying public. The process is called cryonics (not cryogenics, which is an established branch of science that studies extremely low temperatures).
The science of cryonics may seem like science fiction, but a few pioneers are working towards making it science fact. There are only three cryonics labs in the world, but together, they've preserved more than 300 bodies since 1967.
There are many people who see it as a ray of hope despite the present day fact that it is untenable.
While Austin Powers made it all the way to the 1990s to stop Dr. Evil, and Philip J. Fry was thawed out in the year 3000, in the real world, we're still working on the resuscitation side of the equation. We haven't yet brought anyone safely back from the deep freeze.
But that doesn’t mean these labs aren’t trying.
So what exactly is cryonics? Cryonics is a life-extending procedure involving the vitrification process—more on that in a moment—and extremely low temperatures. The cryopreservation process can only be administered after a person is pronounced clinically dead. People can choose to preserve their entire body, or just their head, believe it or not.
Of course, there's no point to the process if you can't successfully resurrect the body, and we don't have the science to do that yet. Cryonics labs and their customers are banking on the technological advances of the future. It may seem like a long shot, but between the highly specified preservation process and recent advances made in the biomedical field, cryonic resurrection could be closer to reality than we think.
For an in-depth look at the process, we spoke with Linda Chamberlain, one of the founders of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, and she explained the entire, highly detailed process.
Essentially, the goal of the cryopreservation process is to slow down death—biologically, Chamberlain explains. Most of us think of life and death as being absolutes. You’re either alive or not, with not much in between. However, it’s not a simple as that.
A person is pronounced clinically dead when their heart stops beating. But even though the heart has stopped, it doesn’t mean all other parts of the body instantly die. We couldn’t have organ transplants if that were the case (as explored in a fascinating article in the Texas Law Review). Cells, body tissue, and organs stay alive for a certain amount of time after the heart stops. The cryonics process uses this time to preserve a body with extremely cold temperatures.
Our best guess is that revival will not be possible or practical for probably 50 to 100 years.
“The body is basically still living, but it can't sustain itself," Chamberlain says of the time just after clinical death. "What we're trying to do is slow down and stop that dying process, so that person has the possibility of being resuscitated in the future when medical science has the ability to do that."
A Step-By-Step Guide to Cryonic Preservation
Chamberlain explains that, for the best results, the preservation procedure should start immediately after a patient is pronounced dead. The first steps are most effective if the cryonic staff is on the scene and by the person’s side when death occurs. Chamberlain does mention that this can be tricky—especially in cases of heart attacks or stroke victims.
However, if a patient learns they have a health issue, they can contact Alcor and a medical response director will call and check in with them as frequently as needed to monitor their status.
Chamberlain even encourages those who can to move to the Scottsdale area, where the Alcor lab is located, for final treatments or hospice care. The closer the patient can be, the better.
“When they are believed to only have a few days, we can have a standby team take the equipment and be with them in the hospice setting," Chamberlain says. "Then as soon as they are pronounced, the procedures start.”
The first step is to cool the body down. There's no freezing at this point, not yet, but you definitely want to lower the body's temperature.
“Once the heart has stopped beating, we immediately move them into an ice bath. One of the best ways to slow down the biochemical dying process is hypothermia," Chamberlain explains. "Cold is your friend in that kind of a situation."
Then it's time to bring on the medicine. While in the ice bath, two vital medications are administered: heparin and propofol. The first is an anticoagulant, while the second removes even the slightest chance that the patient will spontaneously awaken during the preservation process.
Next, a thumper is used to create a mechanical heartbeat and staff intubates their patient. They inject the body with other medications: antibiotics, epinephrine, and drugs that keep blood vessels from collapsing. Chamberlain stresses the importance of preserving the vasculature.
“We care about the vasculature because our procedure replaces the blood with an organ preservation type of fluid," she says. "In order to get it circulated throughout the whole body, we have to use the circulatory system. A lot of attention is given to that.”
For a more detailed look at Alcor's process, check out their cryopreservation protocol here.
Inside the Lab Itself
After all medications have been administered and the external body temperature has been lowered, the team moves the patient to the Alcor lab. The next step involves removing the patient’s blood and replacing it with an organ-transplant–style solution.
This is the same type of fluid used to keep organs for transplant alive and functional, and it helps to chill the body internally. (This article from the journal Transfusion Medicine and Hemotherapy explains the history of these cryoprotective solutions.) In addition to the chilled fluid, Alcor staff cool the outside of the body with nitrogen gas.
“They are being externally cooled as well as internally and we get them down to about two or three degrees above freezing. We don't want any freezing going on yet,” explains Chamberlain.
Remember the somewhat macabre fact that people can decide to preserve either their whole body or just their head, or, more to the point, their brain. This is the point in the process where the surgeon will separate the body from the head, if that's the agreement. Otherwise, the processes are essentially the same for both options.
With the body (or head) a few degrees above freezing, the Alcor team replaces the transplant solution with a cryoprotectant agent, which is really just a fancy term for medical-grade anti-freeze.
The most common misconception about cryopreservation is that the patients are frozen—that’s not entirely true. This cryoprotectant agent vitrifies the body, turning the tissues into something like glass. That way, the freezing won't produce crystals, which damage tissues—instead, the body becomes a solid block. This is a necessary step, Chamberlain explains, "so that when solidification begins to take place, it's not ice, there's no shards, and they will turn into a glass-like substance."
This is an incredibly long process, though, because at higher temperature the protectant is toxic. Chamberlain says they use a computerized injection system that ensures “every degree the temperature goes down, a little bit higher concentration of the cryoprotectant fluid goes in. We start with a very diluted, mild solution, so not to introduce damage,” she says.
This process lasts until the maximum capacity of the fluid is reached, which can take hours. When it's complete, the patient will be close to solid-state vitrification.
Finally, the team takes the body to the patient care bay, where they will make their home for the coming decades—or longer.
“Now they are fully submerged in liquid nitrogen," Chamberlain says of this stage. "Gradually, over seven days, the temperature is lowered until they reach -320 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point they will be a solid, mostly glass state, and are placed in the holding area where they will be held until resuscitation.”
What Does the Future Hold?
Alcor has more than 1,100 members signed up for this preservation process and currently has 153 patients. But what do these patients have in their future?
Even with the proof of concept, it will take time to develop the technology that is required to thaw a whole human being.
Researchers continue to study biopreservation technology and are discovering some interesting outcomes. In one study, scientists were able to successfully use radio waves to rewarm a vitrified tissue sample without any cell damage.
“Of course, a tissue slice is not the same thing as an entire brain, or entire human being," Chamberlain cautions. "But it's baby steps. It's proof of concept that these things can be done. But even with the proof of concept, it will take time to develop the technology that is required to thaw a whole human being."
Chamberlain is particularly hopeful about the possibility of nanotechnology to aid in the resuscitation process. The idea is that nanobots—tiny robots, no larger than a paramecium, perhaps—could enter the body, identify damaged cells or tissues, and repair the damage on a microscopic level.
“These are the kinds of things we envision for the future," Chamberlain says. "That's part of the reason why we tell people our best guess is that revival will not be possible or practical for probably 50 to 100 years, until these technologies can be developed.”
Tissue damage is the main concern when it comes to cryopreservation. Most of the patients are middle-aged or older, which means their bodies aren’t in perfect condition.
“At about [middle] age most of us begin to have arterial calcification, we get clots, all kinds of things, scar tissue from surgeries," Chamberlain says. "These things will interfere with the circulation of our vitrification fluids. If there's a blockage in some artery, the tissue beyond that blockage won't get that very special fluid, and so they will freeze instead of vitrifying. There will be tissue damage in those areas."
There are other unfortunate cases where a person may be deceased for a few days before anyone is aware that they’ve passed. When this happens, the only cryopreservation solution is to immediately lower their temperature to freezing for storage.
“We have about 18 hours after the heart stops that we can successfully use our procedures, with all these different chemicals and processes," Chamberlain says. "If it's longer than that, we usually have to do a straight freeze." This will obviously lead to severe tissue damage, as explained in the journal Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology, and these people will need even more advanced medical technology to be resuscitated.
So... Would You?
While the cryopreservation process is rooted in science, it seems like an awfully big (and expensive) risk to take.
Techniques to repair that damage would also have to be found if by some miracle the person could be reanimated.
Even with Chamberlain’s hopefulness about nanobots and medical advancements, it seems like a long shot to bring someone back after vitrification and liquid nitrogen storage, especially in the cases where tissue damage is inevitable.
Laurie Huget, the executive director of the Cryogenic Society of America (not cryonics, mind you), weighs in on the subject:
“There are many people who see it as a ray of hope despite the present day fact that it is untenable," Huget says. “[The cryonics researchers] are sincere, if not knowledgeable about the physics and biology at play. I will just point out that legally a person cannot be cryonically preserved until they are dead. So even if great strides are made in medicine to cure diseases that are deadly today, the person will still be dead. And freezing does so much damage to the body that techniques to repair that damage would also have to be found if by some miracle the person could be reanimated.”
One thing that’s for sure is the discussion of cryonics will never be boring. On one hand, trusting in science so strongly you believe it can bring you back from the dead is an enviable act of faith. But maybe we'd be better off coming to terms with our mortality and enjoying each moment as it unfolds, aware that our time here is limited.