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Put ’em On Ice

Kris Schnee

For a fee, you can be put on ice.

“Cryonics” is a field of research and a little-known business market, whose purpose is to freeze people and (hopefully) thaw them out later. For a significant price, several organizations in America offer what they call “suspension” or “cryotransport” -- they will pump your body full of chilled fluid, then place you in a large tank of liquid nitrogen... indefinitely. The premise of cryonics is that frozen animal tissue is preserved very well over long periods. If people are frozen today and properly stored, and if they can be revived later, then cryonics becomes not a high-tech burial method, but a way of saving the lives of people with terminal illnesses -- or even old age -- and preserving them until a cure is found for what ails them. The revived patients can then live normal lives again.

Cryonics is a possible way to cheat death, at least for a while. Or at least, that’s the hope. Is it warranted? There are several major questions that need to be resolved. First is the nature of the freezing process -- what happens to the body and mind of someone bathed in liquid nitrogen? The overall structure of frozen tissue, it’s been found, stays intact, but unfortunately ice damages cells as it forms. Some cells in a frozen person are punctured by ice crystals, while others fracture from tensile stress caused by the low temperature. Some proteins may even lose their shape. While we could imagine replacing organs or other tissue damaged by freezing, the brain is a larger problem; if it cannot be protected, there is little point in freezing it.

Modern cryonics organizations use a form of antifreeze, which reduces the damage done to all tissue, but still cannot eliminate it. The basic principle of storing living cells at low temperatures, then warming them with no permanent harm done, is sound -- it has been done with various kinds of animal tissue, and even with human embryos that were since born alive and well -- but no one has yet found a way to revive a whole adult animal once frozen, or shown that freezing will work over the decades that might be required.

Cryonics advocates put their hope in nanotechnology. One of the “holy grails” sought by nanotechnologists is a set of tiny robots which could cruise the human bloodstream, making repairs at the cellular level. Given the recent advances in the field, can we reasonably expect that someday the technology will exist to reverse any damage done by freezing, even to the brain?

The answer is a definite maybe; we simply have no way of knowing whether this will ever be possible. Cryonics companies are offering a gamble. Short of having a team of technicians standing by for someone on the verge of death -- which is available for a price -- how can cryonics get around the fact that the human brain starts to die within minutes of being denied oxygen, especially given that this can happen well before legal death?

The legal definition of death is, in fact, a significant problem: since freezing someone whose heart is still beating would be considered murder, even with the patient’s full consent, cryonicists must wait until a patient is officially declared dead before setting to work. Under this restriction, a patient who has given full consent to freezing might have to be left at room temperature until nothing, not even hypothetical nanotech, can save him. Legalizing at least this form of assisted suicide would solve this problem, giving people the right to choose the gamble of cryonics and get the best possible odds.

Prospective freezing patients at the Alcor company, one of the best known groups, pay an annual fee of $360 (largely tax-deductible), while the Cryonics Institute charges $1250 once, or $120 yearly, for the right to be frozen when necessary. Then comes the real price: anywhere from $28,000 to $120,000 for the actual suspension and indefinite maintenance. This is generally funded through insurance, not cash.

Cryonics does not seem to be a financial scam, or a California fad; it is simply a gamble. There is some evidence that it could work. Buying into it at this point means being fairly optimistic about future technology, given the flaws in the freezing method. It would be reassuring if a better preservation method were found, one that avoided causing damage beyond our present ability to fix. It’s worth considering cryonics now, but for those of us who can wait and see, the best bet is to stay alive as long as possible first.