Is Cryonics Redefining Death?
When we imagine Cryonics the mind goes straight to fiction. Alien, Prometheus, The Event Horizon, Pandorum, even Selene hanging upside down in cryosis in Underworld: Awakening. But the truth is Cryonics isn’t fantasy anymore, it’s fact. The 2000s saw a rapid growth in medicine and technology that could change cryonics as we know it, I wanted to look into Cryo-biology and find out is there a utopia waiting for all of us?
We all know that Cryonics began as what can be described as an overhyped ‘fad’ in the early 1980s and early 1990s, with little hope of success. But the fact is there are now four major cryonic companies operating in 2014 and there are over 200 humans currently in cryopreservation worldwide and several thousand signed up for the process. The two leading institutes are the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and The Cryonics Institute, both located in the U.S.A.
For the patients at both Alcor and CI, the hope is of a future utopia in which they can live out their lives, an extension of chances and an extension of life. There are colossal challenges medically, some which seem insurmountable. These range from having to wait for a patient to become ‘clinically dead’ through to cellular decomposition. Currently the most important is mechanical and chemical damage to the body’s molecular structure through the cryogenic freezing process itself.
Whilst nothing can be done about the legalities of ‘death’, for example freezing someone before they die would yes increase success rate, but also be euthanasia, and that’s a whole different can of worms, work has begun on the other major medical issues.
To combat the mechanical and chemical damage both institutes now use vitrification instead of freezing. Vitrification is a process that really begun to stand out in 2000 as researchers proved that ice crystal formation was drastically reduced. In layman’s terms, vitrification uses a chemical to prevent water molecules from gathering together to form ice, at temperatures below -100° C, molecules become locked in place and a solid is formed. Water that becomes solid without freezing is said to be “vitrified”.
The second major issue is cellular decomposition. Both Alcor and CI combat this with a drastic reduction in the body’s temperature. For example, the amount of cellular decomposition that takes 1 second at normal body temperature takes 24 million years at liquid nitrogen temperature.
So the question is, if there are so many serious issues preventing cryonics from being successful, is there any sign cryonics will actually work? Well, I said at the beginning cryonics is now fact, and whilst a full human body is still to be reanimated from cryonics, other biological items have, and quite frankly, it’s staggeringly impressive. In 2004 a group of scientists from 21st Century Medicine inc filed a comprehensive experiment in which they managed to put a Rabbit’s kidney through the entire cryonics process, and then transplant it back into a Rabbit.
In a report from 2008 by Benjamin P. Best, it is concluded that:
“A rabbit kidney has been vitrified, cooled to -135ºC, re-warmed and transplanted into a rabbit. The formerly vitrified transplant functioned well enough as the sole kidney to keep the rabbit alive indefinitely”.
Best goes on to state that arguably a brain isn’t too different from a kidney, whilst understanding the complexity of the human brain, also respecting the power of it, and believes that scientifically it will be possible.
If that didn’t make all of cryonics sound as science fiction as Star Trek did in 1983, we get to the next possible stage: Nanotechnology.
The world Nanotechnology might already have you reeled back from the page with a sneer of ‘yeah, like that’s ever going to happen’ but the truth it is it already has, and frankly you have probably used it today. Scientists have already produced a nano tech ‘bleeding’ plastic, that when damaged, actually bleeds, like you and me and uses that to mend itself, just like a human. This has already been implemented on cars and aeroplanes. On the simpler scale, modern band-aids now have a nano layer of silver to help you heal quicker, and that iPhone you’re reading this article on has nanotechnology already built in as the accelerometer.
For Cryonics, nanotechnology could solve the mechanical damage of cells on vitrification, it could also eerily keep all of the body functions, including your brain functioning while in cryosis. Hearing that itself is almost more chilling than the temperature you’d be in cryosis.