Freeze. Wait. Reanimate.



19, Nov 2016

A terminally ill 14-year-old girl who wanted her body to be frozen in the hope that she could be brought back to life won a historic legal fight shortly before dying. She died happily knowing that someday she could “come back to life”. Cryonics is the process of preserving dead bodies in very cold temperatures in the hope that someday science will be able to resurrect them.

What has brought cryonics to news?

A 14-year-old UK girl, known as JS, who said before dying of cancer that she wanted a chance to live longer has been allowed by the high court to have her body cryogenically frozen in the hope that she can be brought back to life at a later time.

  • The girl was supported by her mother in her wish to be cryogenically preserved - but not by her father.
  • She wrote to the judge explaining that she wanted "to live longer" and did not want "to be buried underground".
  • The 14-year-old, described as a "bright, intelligent young person", had her wish granted shortly before she died. She died in October, and has been taken to the US (there is no such provision in the UK) and preserved there.
  • The girl had written:"I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I am only 14-years-old and I don't want to die but I know I am going to die. I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up - even in hundreds of years' time. I don't want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish."
  • The judge visited the girl in hospital and said he was moved by "the valiant way in which she was facing her predicament".
  • His ruling, he said, was not about the rights or wrongs of cryonics but about a dispute between her divorced parents over the disposal of their daughter's body.
  • The court ruled that the teenager’s mother, who supported the girl’s wish to be cryogenically preserved, should be the only person allowed to make decisions about the disposal of her body
  • It was brought to court for the first time on 26 September and the judge made his decision on 6 October. The details have been made available to the wider public only now.

‘JS’ has now been frozen “in perpetuity” by a commercial company at a cost of £37,000. Her wish has been fulfilled but not without reviving the debate around cryonics, the science of preserving dead bodies.

“I don’t want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish.”

Why is cryonics generating interest?

Cryonics is the process of preserving a whole body in the hope that resuscitation and a cure are possible in the distant future. Cryonics sounds like science fiction, but is based on modern science. It's an experiment in the most literal sense of the word.

  • But it is a controversial procedure and no-one yet knows if it is possible to bring people back to life.
  • There are three facilities in the US and one in Russia where bodies can be preserved in liquid nitrogen at very low temperatures (less than -130C).
  • The cost of preserving the body for an infinite amount of time in the present case (of JS) was £37,000.
  • Simon Woods, an expert in medical ethics from Newcastle University, thinks the whole idea is science fiction. He said:"The diagnosis of death is that death is irreversible, and for people who seek cryopreservation, they've died of a serious disease, in this case it's cancer. The person is in a pretty bad state of health to begin with, and there's absolutely no scientific evidence that the person could be brought back to life."

However, what if the future generations find a way to bring the dead back through advances in science For sure the other two methods - cremation and burial - do not even provide the post-death option of coming back to life.

Cryogenic preservation: How does it work

  • The process needs to begin as soon as possible after the patient dies, to stop brain cells dying through lack of oxygen
  • Bodies are first cooled in ice baths to slowly reduce the body temperature
  • Blood is removed from the body and replaced with cryo-protectant fluid, stopping ice crystals forming inside, which in turn damages cells.
  • The bodies are transferred for storage - only companies in the US and Russia do this at present.
  • The companies put the person into an ‘arctic sleeping bag’ and lower them into a giant tank, with low temperatures.
  • Whole bodies or just heads can be preserved, as well as pets.

Scientists have yet to prove they will be able to bring them back to life. But they have proved they can preserve bodies for decades.

Preservation of biodiversity

  • The Frozen Ark is a charitable frozen zoo project created jointly by the Zoological Society of London, the Natural History Museum and University of Nottingham. The project aims to preserve the DNA and living cells of endangered species to retain the genetic knowledge for the future. The Frozen Ark collects and stores samples taken from animals in zoos and those threatened with extinction in the wild, with the expectation that, someday, cloning technologies will have matured sufficiently to resurrect extinct species.

When did cryonics truly begin?

  • In 1922 Alexander Yaroslavsky, member of Russian immortalists-biocosmists movement, wrote the "Anabiosys Poem". The communists in Russia got really interested in keeping their leaders’ bodies forever.
  • In 1955 James Lovelock was able to reanimate rats frozen at 0 Celsius using microwave diathermy.
  • However, the modern era of cryonics began in 1962 when Michigan College physics teacher Robert Ettinger proposed in a privately published book, The Prospect of Immortality, that freezing people may be a way to reach future medical technology. (The book was republished in 2005 and remains in print.)
  • Even though freezing a person is apparently fatal, Ettinger argued that what appears to be fatal today may be reversible in the future. He applied the same argument to the process of dying itself, saying that the early stages of clinical death may be reversible in the future. Combining these two ideas, he suggested that freezing recently deceased people may be a way to save lives.
  • Slightly before Ettinger’s book was complete, Evan Cooper (writing as Nathan Duhring) privately published a book called Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now that independently suggested the same idea.
  • Cooper founded the Life Extension Society (LES) in 1964 to promote freezing people. Ettinger came to be credited as the originator of cryonics, perhaps because his book was republished by Doubleday in 1964 on recommendation of Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl, and received more publicity. Ettinger also stayed with the movement longer.
  • The first person was cryopreserved in 1967. In the U.S., cryonics took a reputation hit around the 1970s: the Cryonics Society of California, led by a former TV repairman named Robert Nelson with no scientific background, ran out of money to maintain cryopreservation of existing patients; Nelson was sued for allowing nine bodies to decompose.
  • The use of vitrification (transformation into glass) rather than freezing for cryonics was anticipated in 1986, when K. Eric Drexler proposed a technique called fixation and vitrification, anticipating reversal by molecular nanotechnology.
  • In 2016, Robert L. McIntyre and Gregory Fahy at the cryobiology research company 21st Century Medicine, Inc. won the Small Animal Brain Preservation Prize of the Brain Preservation Foundation by demonstrating to the satisfaction of neuroscientist judges that a particular implementation of fixation and vitrification called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation could preserve a rabbit brain in "near perfect" condition at -135 degree, with the cell membranes, synapses, and intracellular structures intact in electron micrographs.

Where are the concerns?

Science tells us that a map of connections is not sufficient to simulate, let alone replicate, a nervous system, and that there are enormous barriers to achieving immortality.

  • First, what information is required to replicate a human mind Second, do current or foreseeable freezing methods preserve the necessary information, and how will this information be recovered Third, and most confounding to our intuition, would a simulation really be “you” (let us not bring the ‘soul’ angle here)

Strong arguments are made in favor of at least digitally replicating brain in the future - the exact same brain of the person who perished long ago.

However, neurologically speaking, at the moment it is highly unlikely that preserving the brain also preserves everything required to replicate it.

  • Synapses are the physical contacts between neurons where a special form of chemoelectric signaling — neurotransmission — occurs, and they come in many varieties. They are complex molecular machines made of thousands of proteins and specialized lipid structures.
  • Neurons and other cells in the brain are in constant communication through signaling pathways that do not act through synapses. Many of the signals that regulate fundamental behaviors such as eating, sleeping, mood, mating, and social bonding are mediated by chemical cues acting through networks that are invisible to us anatomically.
  • The really tough problem of simulating any brain as opposed to the stupendously more difficult task of replicating a particular brain, which is required for the promised personal immortality of uploading a human brain into a computer.

The features of our neurons (and other cells) and synapses that make us “us” are not generic.

  • The vast array of subtle chemical modifications, states of gene regulation, and subcellular distributions of molecular complexes are all part of the dynamic flux of a living brain.These things are not details that average out in a large nervous system; rather, they are the very things that engrams (the physical constituents of memories) are made of.

Finally, would an upload really be you

  • Whatever our subjective sense of self is, let’s assume it arises from the operation of the physical matter of the brain. We could also tentatively conclude that such awareness is substrate-neutral:if brains can be conscious, a computer program that does everything a brain does should be conscious, too. If one is also willing to imagine arbitrarily complex technology, then we can also think about simulating a brain down to the synaptic or molecular or (why not ) atomic or quantum level.
  • Even if it is you - would you really want to live in a computer forever Is that the idea of the good life that makes you want to live forever

There are religious concerns too. Statements like:"Cryonicists intend to raise the dead, claiming power that only God holds," "The desire to extend life on Earth contradicts what is taught in the Bible," and "The souls of those in cryonic suspension are caught in a hellish limbo between Heaven and Earth." have been accepted as maxims among the Christian community.

There is another - comparatively minor - issue.

Don’t Know When You Will Wake Up: It really is an issue that the whole success of this project depends on someone inventing a way to wake you up. At this juncture the freezing part is available but the reviving part is not available. Of course this process is reserved for someone that is considered dead so ultimately if the process does not work it really does not matter anyway.

Who was the first person to sign up?

Cryonics began in the 1960s; however, the Russians had got interested in preserving their dead bodies much earlier (they beat America even to this).

The most famous dead Russian body is that of Vladimir Lenin, the great leader of Russian Revolution. His body was not preserved using cryonics, but the fact that his body remains good (some say it looks better) 92 years after he died in 1924 is a tribute to the dedication the Russians have to Lenin. Generations of Russian scientists have spent almost a century fine-tuning preservation techniques that have maintained the look, feel and flexibility of Lenin's body. A core group of five to six anatomists, biochemists and surgeons, known as the "Mausoleum group," have the primary responsibility for maintaining Lenin's remains. They also help maintain the preserved bodies of three other national leaders: the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and the North Korean father–son duo of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, respectively. Imagine them being revived together to revive communism and conquer the world with it. The communists were futurists.

Moving from Communism to Cryonics, it was only in 1967 that the first person was crypto-preserved.

  • Dr. James Bedford, a psych professor at the University of California, was the first person to ever be cryonically preserved. The choice to be preserved by freezing was entirely his; he even left money for a steel capsule and liquid nitrogen in his will. So, when he died on January 12, 1967, his family abided by his wishes. It was a big day in the cryonics community, and they still refer to January 12 as "Bedford Day."
  • Dick Clair Jones was in the television industry: he was a producer, actor and writer who had a hand in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Facts of Life and Mama's Family. He was also really interested in cryonics and was a member of the Cryonics Society of California. In 1988, he died of AIDS-related infections and was immediately put on ice – literally.
  • Thomas K. Donaldson, a mathematician, had ideas about death that were even stranger than cryonics.He believed that even though people were "dead," their brains continued to exist and have functionality and we just don't have the technology to access it yet. He died in 2006 and is assumed to have been cryonically preserved. He seemed to be pretty confident that he would be back someday; in a 1982 interview, when asked for a piece of wisdom to pass on to cryonicists, he said, "I'm sure that any profound piece of wisdom I might have would seem really rather stupid in 300 years. So I think it would be better for me to say nothing, so I don't feel ashamed of myself in 300 years."
  • FM-2030. Yes, that was his real name. He was born Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, but changed his name to reflect his goal of living to be 100 (2030 would have been his 100th birthday).He also predicted that 2030 would be a magical time. He died in 2000 at the age of 69 when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He was cryogenically frozen because he believed that people would soon develop synthetic organs and body parts that would make the notion of death a thing of the past.
  • Dora Kent is a sad tale. Her son, Saul, was a board member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation (most of these cryogenically-frozen people were frozen by Alcor and are stored in their facilities). In 1987 at the age of 84, she came down with a fatal case of pneumonia and was unable to recover. When it looked like death was upon her, she was brought to the Alcor facilities so they could freeze her when she died. And they did, with no doctor present. When a coroner later inspected her headless body (Alcor removed the head for scientific purposes, we guess), he first agreed with the pneumonia assessment, and then reversed his decision and said he thought she was murdered.Certain metabolites found in her body led him to believe that she was alive when they started to freeze her. He demanded Dora's head for further testing, and Alcor refused to produce it. Some of the Alcor members were arrested, but nothing came of it and no one was ever charged with anything.
  • Jerry Leaf was Alcor's vice president until his death in 1991, so it only stands to reason that he was frozen when he died of heart attack.
  • Ted Williams, baseball star, is without a doubt the most famous cryogenically frozen person. But the circumstances surrounding his freezing are a bit controversial. His son, John-Henry Williams, was adamant that his father wanted to be preserved to be brought back in the future, and wanted his whole family to follow suit so they could be reunited when technology and medicine made it possible. However, Ted's will said he wanted to be cremated, and his daughter by his first wife took John-Henry to court over the matter. John-Henry produced a "family pact" signed on a cocktail napkin. After much debate over authenticity, the napkin-pact was allowed and Ted was frozen.
  • John-Henry Williams. Yes, Ted's son stayed true to his word. Despite a bone marrow transplant from his sister, John-Henry died of leukemia on March 6, 2004, and joined his dad at Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Walt Disney was not frozen. Despite the persisting rumors, Disney was not frozen. After his death in 1966, he was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

How does cryonics offer hope?

Josh Schisler and Kim Suozzi were so much in love they would not even let death do them apart. In the moments just before Suozzi died of cancer at age 23, it fell to her boyfriend, Josh, to follow through with the plan to freeze her brain.

  • He alerted the cryonics team waiting nearby and called the hospice nurses to come pronounce her dead. Any delay would jeopardize the chance to maybe, someday, resurrect her mind.
  • More than memories, Josh, then 24, wished for the crude procedure “to salvage whatever synapses gave rise to her dry, generous humor, compelled her to greet every cat she saw with a high-pitched “helllooo,” and inspired her to write him poems”.

They knew how strange it sounded, the hope that Kim’s brain could be preserved in subzero storage so that decades or centuries from now, if science advanced, her billions of interconnected neurons could be scanned, analyzed and converted into computer code that mimicked how they once worked.

  • Some scientists believe that a map of all your brain's connections, known as your connectome, could be used to simulate your consciousness and what makes you feel unique. Josh and Kim took this chance. Of course, the success of their plan of getting reunited will depend on Josh too getting his brains frozen when he dies - which may be years from now.

In spite of all the criticism, the proponents of Cryonics are right in one aspect - we do not really understand death yet. The hope is that the future generations will know death better than we do, and may bring us back to life (would they want to ) when they can.

Like Socrates said, all we know is that we don’t know.

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Tags | body to be frozen come back to life Cryonics terminally ill