by Matthew Morrow
A man’s eyes open slowly as if they just recovered from a deep sleep. With a still head and eyelids fixed wide open, his eyeballs chaotically scan in every direction. The room is dark and foreign. The man’s naked body lies submerged in a strange steel bathtub full of ice. A red sign hangs on the wall directly in front of the tub.
“In case of emergency, don’t move, call 911 immediately.”
The man notices a landline phone bolted to the wall next to him. His shaking fingers grab the phone and dial 911. After describing the situation to the operator, there is no response. The call suddenly transfers, and an agent begins speaking in a sharp tone.
“Reach behind your head.”
The man juts his head side-to-side, but there is nothing visible in his periphery. His numb, stiff arms slowly begin moving posteriorly.
“Can you feel a tube sticking out of the base of your skull?”
Reaching behind his neck, his hand hits thin plastic. His fingers trace back it towards the skull. With a tight grip, both hands grab and pull. It doesn’t give.
Grasping the phone violently, the man yells, “What is happening!?”
The agent replies, “The FBI recently shut down a research laboratory in the area for kidnapping adults from local emergency rooms and running illegal experiments on them.”
Deep pulsating aches overcome the man’s head as his heart pounds against his chest wall simultaneously.
“We have reason to believe you just woke up in one of their associated facilities,” the agent says. “Are you able to get out of the tub?”
He screeches, “Hold on! What kind of experiments? What does this tube do!?”
The agent softly yet firmly says, “You need to stay calm. We have to verify your location so we can dispatch an agent to help.”
Taking a deep breath, he replies, “Okay. I’ll try to get up and look around.”
Barely able to bend his knees, his legs manage to stand without slipping. An IV pole sits in the corner of the room. It has an empty bag hanging from it that connects to the tube. The bag reads:
“Intracarotid: 5L cold saline, 13% dimethyl sulfoxide, 13% glycerol.”
The IV pole’s wheels act as a crutch as the man’s feet shuffle towards the only door. The door has some sort of fingerprint scanner instead of a doorknob. He places his thumb on it, and the scanner lights up. Nothing happens.
His first instinct is to bang on the door and scream.
“HELP!!! Is anybody there!? Please!”
A robotic female voice starts playing on the overhead speakers. “Hello, the last recorded vital signs for patient identification number 96B-79S are from 96 hours and 20 minutes ago and were within normal limits. Is there anything else you need help with?”
The man shouts, “Who are you!?”
An immediate response plays, “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that command. Please try again.”
He belts again, “Where am I!?”
The same response plays.
With his body weight leaning on the door, the man’s fist continues to pound on it with what little strength his muscles have left. He defeatedly murmurs, “please…can you just open the door.”
The door automatically jolts open. The doorway reveals a glimpse of what appears to be an abandoned control room with dozens of doors and individual screens outside each of them.
Limping towards the exit, a bright light outside the door catches his eye. Looking at the screen deepens his cerebral aches. There is a touchscreen interface with an animated human body. After tapping on the flashing light hovering over the body’s head, the screen reads:
Origin: Sub-patient 96
Date expired: 06/03/2030
Cause of expiration: liver failure secondary to pancreas mass
Expiration to harvest time: 7 minutes
Age at harvest: 31 years
Confused, he taps the arrow to go back and press on the light over the body’s trunk.
Shell (organs included)
Origin: Sub-patient 79
Date expired: 04/22/2030
Cause of expiration: head trauma
Expiration to harvest time: 25 minutes
Age at harvest: 22 years”
Trembling, the man’s oscillating index finger moves towards the back arrow. His head feels like it’s going to explode. In the top left of the screen, a message in red reads, “Warning. Action needed immediately.” Tapping it prompts a new window:
Date of message: 02/15/3008
Transplant Patient ID: 96B-79S
Overdue Infusion: 95 hours and 20 minutes overdue.
Please administer emergent infusion to ensure adequate preservation.
A cry coming from the next room interrupts my reading of the message. The IV pole aids him in rushing over. The door won’t open. It’s now impossible to think with the insane stabbing in his temple.
A girl’s faint voice whispers, “Hello, is someone there? Where am I?”
The man’s jaw won’t open to respond. Everything seems blurry. It gets harder to keep his eyes open. His knees start to buckle. His palms lose grip of the IV pole. For a moment, something urges him to stop resisting.
End of auto-recorded neural transcription. Duration of reanimation: 6 minutes.
Cryonics is defined as the practice of deep-freezing the bodies of humans who have just legally died, with the goal of reviving them at a future date. This practice relies on the belief that technology will be advanced enough to accomplish this goal one day in the future. Cryonics, thus, aims to redefine the current medical and legal definitions of human death. Here, we will explore what the existing evidence about cryonics research and what promising work is being done in the field today.
The practice of cryonics dates back to 1967, during which a 73-year old psychologist became the first human to undergo cryogenic freezing with the help of a now prominent leader in cryonics, Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Several organizations looking to get in on the practice have since opened and closed their doors, with less than a dozen still operating today.
As of 2020, Alcor reports that nearly 1,300 people have completed full legal and financial arrangements with them for pending cryopreservation. Even more, 175 additional patients have already undergone cryopreservation since that first patient in 1967. Case summaries of nearly all of these patients are available on Alcor’s website. For example, their most recent patient, A-1774, is a 77-year old male who legally died of cardiac arrest in January 2020 and whose whole body arrived for cryopreservation in Alcor’s operating room within 90 minutes of his pronouncement of death.
Those in the field have championed Alcor as the most reliable source of information on the practice of cryonics. Although no patients have been revived just yet, Alcor is leading the way in research by focusing on optimizing cryopreservation techniques. These techniques include vitrification (a process that reduces ice formation) and studying developing technologies such as molecular nanotechnology, which may allow for the complete regeneration of cells and tissues.
Alcor recently received a $5 million donation in 2018 to focus on cryonics technology, with which they have acquired a CT scanner that evaluates freezing damage during cryo-perfusion of patients and in already preserved patients. These funds additionally helped improve their liquid ventilation system to allow for faster cooling of patients in an ice bath.
Cryonics Institute (CI), is another leader in the field, founded by the “father of cryonics” Robert Ettinger. Its stated mission is to give people the opportunity to live again to see a brighter future. As of June 2020, the organization has helped 186 patients achieve cryostasis. In April 2020, CI patient #186, an 81-year-old male who legally died during hospitalization was placed on dry ice and transferred to their facility for controlled cooling to the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Due to COVID travel restrictions, the 48-hour window for perfusion was forgone, as the patient did not arrive at their facility until one week from pronouncement. A similar delay was seen in CI patient #185, an 83-year-old female from London, England, who did not arrive at the facility until one month after the date of legal death due to travel restrictions.
In terms of available cryonics research, several organizations, including the two mentioned above, have been working with scientists to advance the field. Published efforts in cryonics can be found in scientific journals such as Rejuvenation Research and Nature. Studies have focused on documenting the successful cryopreservation of humans (or human brains) as well as the revival of life and brain function in cryopreserved animals.
For example, a 2015 study by Alcor Research Center and two collaborating universities found that C. elegans species who underwent cryopreservation and revival were able to retain the mechanisms responsible for forming long-term memories. A 2018 study by Yale University School of Medicine demonstrated the restoration of molecular and cellular function in pig brains for up to four hours after death. The researchers developed a brain perfusion system that is somewhat analogous to a dialysis machine, but instead of artificially filtering fluids for poorly functioning kidneys, they supplied a brain with the molecules it needs for survival. Perfusion was accomplished by continuously pumping protective fluids into the brain in a pulsatile manner, allowing for sustained oxygen supply to brain cells and tissues.
Most recently, a 2020 study by Longevity Bridge, Inc. and two university partners demonstrated successful cryopreservation of the brain of a 78-year-old female in Argentina. The human cryopreservation technique, which required an infusion of a cryoprotective liquid into the brain’s carotid arteries, was replicated in three groups of rats. Brain samples were then analyzed by immunohistochemistry, to establish experimental correlates in these animals. The results showed that certain neuron markers of brain function were unaffected by cryopreservation, while other neuron markers saw a marked dropped in number.
It becomes evident that cryonics research will remain relatively stagnant due to the shortcomings of existing technology and medicine. The leading cryonics institutions have championed nanotechnology as the future of the industry and the key to the successful and safe revival of humans in cryostasis. Still, until that technology develops further, there will unlikely be any cryonics-related clinical trials on humans. At present, the bulk of related efforts are pushing towards perfecting the cooling and storage methodology used during cryopreservation and studying revival techniques in animal subjects. With the exponential growth rate of technology seen in the last several decades, cryonics will be looking to continuously leverage emerging advances to slowly move their work forward.
The ethics of cryonics is ultimately complicated by the use of theoretical evidence (i.e., the idea that we can predict what future technologies will look like). Supporters might argue that medical providers violate the Hippocratic oath they swear to by not practicing cryonics, while others might point to insufficient evidence or overpopulation as counterarguments. Books could be written on this discussion alone. Detailed discussions, both in favor and against, have been published in the last few years in the Journal of Medical Ethics and Bioethics.
In the dystopian narrative at the beginning of this article, a world was introduced in which cryonic technology was being abused to preserve the organs of non-consenting humans who had just died. However, much like many instances in healthcare today, the wishes of the deceased are not always known in advance of emergent situations. This is especially true for young patients who have never thought about filling out an advanced directive. Some patients specify how long they would want to be kept alive through an advanced directive, for example, if they were placed into a medically induced coma. Their decision may be based on the percentage odds that they would wake up, have their baseline cognitive functions, and spend more time with their loved ones.
If an advanced algorithm could tell you that you have a 10% chance of revival from cryostasis within the next 30 years, then this situation may be analogous to many medical decisions made today. Think about a mother in her 30s who recently married a loving partner, recently gave birth to 2 beautiful children and was about to start a new life with her amazing family. Instead, she is suddenly diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, is rapidly deteriorating, and is given two months to live. If you had a 10% chance to wake up cancer-free in the next thirty years and get to see your children and partner again, would you take it?
On a more macroscopic level, cryonics offers an opportunity for unprecedented human progress. If those who undergo cryopreservation can retain their memories and knowledge from their previous existence, human society and technology could reach new peaks. Imagine if each generation’s brightest and best minds were preserved before their natural death and then reunited at a future date to weigh in on current events. Sure, they would need to catch up on the latest, but these minds offer their brilliance and the wisdom associated with having lived in an entirely different generation.
Think of how often people muse over the question, “If you could have dinner with one person in all of history, who would you pick?” The motivation behind this question includes both the fascination with their lived perspective on history and their unique opinion on the progress of society. Cryonics could usher in a new age of progress, in which the brightest and most influential minds from every industry and across several generations could unite to make the world a better place.