Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

Cryonics is the preservation of living humans or animals by extreme cooling with the aim of restoring them to a normal animate state at a later date. It is commonly confused (by me, at least) with cryogenics, which is simply the science of making things very cold.

I mention this as I was quite surprised to see the IET Engineering & Technology magazine featuring and article on cryonics. Like many people, I have always considered cryonics to be pure science fiction, taken seriously only by a minority of hopefuls who presumably desire to wake up in a world filled with rich eccentrics.

The article dispelled a number of my misconceptions. For example, modern cryonics is not freezing. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which makes a big gooey mess of cells, probably destroying any chance of revival. The modern process involves vitrification, which is achieved by replacing cell-fluid with cryprotectant fluid before extreme cooling. This fluid is unfortunately toxic, at least you can’t live with it in place of your cell-fluid. So all cryopreservation work has to be done after legal death, otherwise they’d be killing the patient. However, cryonicists do not consider clinical death to be a real death – unless it involves the destruction of information in the brain. Rather they consider cryonically preserved people to be alive but inactive, like someone in a deep coma. This is perhaps not unreasonable given the number of people who’ve been clinically dead – without heartbeat or breathing – and have been fully revived. Indeed this is the premise on which CPR is based.

While I certainly won’t be saving up to have myself cryopreserved, the whole thing seems slightly less crazy now. Slightly.

However, the process of reviving a cryonically preserved patient is still not possible with current technology. The hope is that future technology, especially nanotechnology, will someday be able to reconstruct a cyropreserved patient as well as reverse the aging process or condition which would have killed them. They also need to replace the cryoprotectant with cell-fluid. An alternative is to electronically scan the brain to reconstruct a working copy. Judging from the preservation case studies provided by the non-profit Cryonics Institute, preservation techniques appear to be carefully researched and carried out. Nevertheless, none of this is a guarantee of future revival. Cryonics currently requires an expensive leap of faith.

How big a leap? Is full revival of humans likely? The E&T article interviewed Tanya Jones, Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s executive director who said,

“While we are seeing that stem cells can actually revive every organ in the body, we still have many years of research until cryonics is a reversible procedure […] However, recent testing has proven that it is already reversible for an individual organ down to -130°C, based on the testing of rabbit kidneys.”

Meanwhile, Ben Best of the CI says,

“Bull sperm have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and used for fertilisation since the early 1950s… And, since 1982, human embryos stored in liquid nitrogen have been used by fertility clinics with much success. Additionally, nematode worms have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and then revived.”

I’m no biologist, but it would seem there are some big differences between sperm and a  brain. In particular, sperm are individual cells, adapated to live outside the body for extended periods. Plus only a few of them need to survive for the revival process to be considered a success. A brain however, needs a constant supply of oxygen to prevent damage and can be irrevocably changed if a small percentage of cells die or the connections between them are lost. It’s difficult to tell how much damage has been done to even the most carefully cryopreserved human brains. Only when a human or animal has been revived and shown to have retained earlier memories can we say that there’s evidence this is possible. For now, my guess is that it’s unlikely people being cryopreserved today could be reanimated with their identity intact.

Having learnt about this, I wondered what religious people made of it. My assumption was that they’d be hopping up and down in anger that science is daring to intrude on the afterlife, which is usually considered sacred religious turf. Certainly it seems that the willingness to believe that cryonics can work may stem from a similar motivation to the belief in a supernatural afterlife – the fear of death.

To my surprise I’ve found little religious consternation over the ideas and aims of cryonics. Steve Tsai at apologetics.com considers the implications of Crygenic Resuscitations for a Christian world-view and concludes them to be no different from short-term resuscitations.

Part of this may be due to the way cryonics markets itself as a medical intervention for the living, rather than a ressurection of the dead. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a couple of thorough articles on cryonics and religion, comparing it to heart transplants and other life-saving surgery and concluding that we have a religiously-driven obligation to preserve life whenever possible and that this should include cryonics.

However, I suspect the main reason that religious institutions do not spend any time condemning organisations such as Alcor is because they don’t see them as a threat. There are still only a small minority of of the population willing and able to sign up for cryonic preservation and for most of us it remains science fiction. Even apparently innocuous subjects like Harry Potter or The Beatles can find themselves on the receiving end of religious wrath when they become popular enough to distract attention from religious ideas. I suspect that if cryonics was to become commonplace, such that many people’s fear of death was lessened, religions would lose one of their unique selling-points and express their disapproval in no uncertain terms.