Life After Death: The Science of Cryonics

It’s time for everybody’s favourite topic: death. Or second favourite, behind love. As morbid as it might seem, death is a commonly reoccurring thought in everybody’s minds. What happens after death? How and when will you die? Is it painless? 

Chances are, depending on your personality, you’ve thought either a little or a lot about your death and what you would like to do with your body once you die. Would you like to be cremated? Buried in the ground? Mummified? What about cryonics

It's a different way of preserving the body after death, one that lies in the hopes of one day reviving it. This is how JS, a 14-year-old girl in UK diagnosed with a rare and terminal form of cancer, decided to be preserved.

What is it?

Let me break down the facts for you. Cryogenics is the study of what happens to materials when frozen at very low temperatures. Cryonics therefore, is the act of freezing or preserving dead bodies in very low temperatures in hopes of one day reviving them. The theory behind this practice is that someone diagnosed with a disease modern medicine cannot cure can be frozen today and “revived” in the future once a cure has been discovered. An individual preserved via cryonics is referred to as being in “cryonic suspension.”

However, cryonics is a very complicated process. For one, it is illegal to perform this procedure on a person who is still alive. In other words, in order to perform cryonic suspension on someone, this person must be legally dead. Legally dead isn’t the same as being “totally dead.” Being “totally dead” means there is no brain function in the body. However, being legally dead means the heart has stopped beating, but some cellular brain function remains. In theory, once this little brain cell function has been preserved, the person can be revived in the future.

How it works

Undergoing cryonic suspension is not an easy process. First, you must a join costly cryonics facility where you could be paying annual membership fees upwards of $400 a year (in total the entire procedure can cost up to $150,000).

Once pronounced legally dead, an emergency response team arrives to stabilize your body, supplying your brain with enough oxygen to preserve minimal brain function for transportation to the facility. They also inject a substance to prevent your blood from clotting.

Once at the cryonics facility, your body cannot simply be put into a tub of liquid nitrogen. Body cells are part water, and when water freezes, it expands, causing cells to shatter. Therefore, the cryonics team must first remove all the water from your cells and replace it with cryoprotectant, a type of human antifreeze with a glycerol base. This process, called vitrification, is undergone in hopes to protect the organs and tissues from forming ice crystals.

From here, your body is cooled to about -130 C, placed into a container, and then further placed into a liquid nitrogen metal tank with an average temperature of about -196 degrees Celsius. Your body is placed into the tank head down, allowing your brain to remain immersed in the freezing liquid if there is every a leak in the tank. In the same metal tank several other bodies are stored.

                                                               Image Credit: Xavier Aaronson, Source: VICE

For those who might find cryonic suspension to be too expensive, neurosuspension is also available, where only the brain is preserved and frozen. The idea behind this is the hope that technology will eventually allow for the cloning or regeneration of the rest of the body. This procedure costs about $50,000.

However, this practice is currently still in its infancy stages, and there many speculations behind whether or not it can actually work.

Therefore the million dollar question is: does it work?

Cryobiologists themselves admit that they have not been able to successfully revive anyone. The main issue with unfreezing bodies is that it must be done at a certain temperature at the correct speed. Otherwise, it risks freezing and cell rupture. However, they place their faith in nanotechnology, which “uses microscopic machines to manipulate single atoms to build or repair anything.” Some predict this could be as early as 2040.

Who has been frozen?

Dozens of people have been frozen through cryonics. Mentioned earlier in this article, a 14-year-old girl referred to as JS recently won a court case to be preserved via cryonic suspension. She wanted to be preserved in hopes that science could one day find a cure to her rare form of cancer. One of the most famous preserved bodies belongs to the legendary baseball player Ted Williams, who is currently being stored at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona. Simon Cowell revealed back in 2009 his intentions to have his body frozen after his death in order to be brought back in the future. And of course, in popular culture, Fry from Futurama was accidentally frozen via cryogenics, only to wake up 1000 years later.

                                                                                                Via giphy.com

There are many moral and ethical implications of the cryonics process. Some argue that cryonics companies are scamming people for their money on the unkeepable promise of immortality. Cryonics may also tempt premature euthanasia, and might change peoples' concepts of death, in addition to the lack of scientific evidence to permit revival. Some of the larger companies which provide these services are the aforementioned Alcor Life Extension Foundation, and the Cryonics Institute. In many jurisdictions, cryonics is not identified as a legal method of body disposal. Some jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, prohibit the sale of arrangements for body preservation based on cryonics. 

However, despite the shortcomings of cryonics, it is a very interesting topic to think and talk about. While modern science has yet to come up with a way to perfectly revive cryogenically preserved bodies, the idea of cryonics does bring in many interesting concepts such as immortality and the avoidance of death. Only time, however, will tell whether this method actually works.