Cryopreservation: Freezing Bodies to Cure Death

Friday, 22 August 2014 - 12:07PM
Medical Tech
Friday, 22 August 2014 - 12:07PM

Urban legend dictates that Albert Einstein's brain was pickled in a jar to preserve it for further study. Now, Max More, the president of cryonics company Alcor, has signed on to have his brain frozen when he dies. He is confident that, at some point in the future, tissue regeneration will be perfected to the point that he will be resuscitated. 



According to his company's website, cryonics is an experimental procedure that preserves a human being in order to take advantage of (projected) medical advances in the future. "We see it as an extension of emergency medicine," explains More. ""We're just taking over when today's medicine gives up on a patient. Think of it this way: 50 years ago if you were walking along the street and someone keeled over in front of you and stopped breathing you would have checked them out and said they were dead and disposed of them. Today we don't do that, instead we do CPR and all kinds of things. People we thought were dead 50 years ago we now know were not. Cryonics is the same thing, we just have to stop them from getting worse and let a more advanced technology in the future fix that problem." 



Cryonics is still somewhat speculative, as no one has yet to try bringing a human back to life after preservation. However, similar research in suspended animation has made leaps and bounds, with researchers beginning human trials for lowering body temperatures in order to extend the window of time for life-saving procedures. But in that case, the bodies are neither dead nor completely frozen, only chilled to the point that their bodies imitate death. There is no way to know whether an entire frozen body can even be resuscitated, let alone treated for the original disease. 


Even still, 984 people have placed their faith in More's philosophy, and signed up with Alcor to be preserved when they die. But preservation comes at a steep cost - a yearly membership fee of about $770. Thats a whopping $757,680 total. And, when it comes time to actually implement the medical procedure, the cost ranges from $80,000 for just the brain (More's personal choice, called neuropreservation), to $200,000 for the whole body. 


The procedure is also somewhat frighteningly unregulated, as noted on their website: "Because cryonics patients are legally deceased, Alcor can [legally] use methods not yet approved for conventional medical use."



For the actual procedure, the standby team transfers the patient into an ice bed, and covers his or her body with a frozen solution. They then artificially restore blood flow to the body, and sixteen different medications are administered to protect the body from cell deterioration. Once a patient has undergone this controversial procedure, Alcor moves them to an operating theatre. 


Now prepped for surgery, the body is drained of blood and other fluids, and then pumped full of an antifreeze solution that doesn't form ice crystals. It is then cooled down by about one degree Celsius per hour, eventually resting at -196 degrees. The frozen body is then placed in a nitrogen freezer for indefinite storage. 



If that procedure sounds horrifying, More would argue that the natural alternative isn't any more comforting, we're just more accustomed to it: "We don't want to be cryopreserved – we hate the idea in fact. The idea of sitting in a tank of liquid nitrogen not able to control our own destinies is not appealing. But it's a lot more appealing than the alternative, to be digested by worms or incinerated – that doesn't appeal to us at all."


But even More must admit that nothing is guaranteed: "We don't know for sure... It's possible that Alcor and companies like it are simply storing a lot of dead bodies in liquid nitrogen."

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