In 1962, Robert Ettinger published The Prospect of Immortality, a pseudo-nonfiction book detailing the rationale and methods that could be used to successfully freeze and resuscitate a person. Since then, cryonics has captivated millions. It is a tantalizing concept—one day you’re living in the present, and the next, you wake up decades or centuries in the future. It is a conceptually simple form of time travel. It doesn’t involve wormholes that curve space-time, speed of light travel, or exceptions to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Simply put, the crux of cryonics is to slow down or stop molecular activity to halt aging and more importantly to avoid the death process. For most of us, cryonics seems plausible. We can wrap our minds around the idea and believe it is something that is obtainable in our lifetime.
Cryonics has been used as a literary device in countless stories and movies. The book Across the Universe tells a story about a 17-year-old girl who joins her parents on a cargo ship traveling to a planet that is 300 years away. To survive, they are placed in bio-stasis. The girl is awakened 50 years too early when an attempt on her life fails. In the movie Vanilla Sky, the main character is disfigured in a horrible accident. He is rushed to a cryonics center where he is placed in bio-stasis. One of the aspects of the procedure is that participants are put into a constant dream state. At first, his dreams are about a perfect life but they soon turn into a nightmare. Eventually, he is made aware that he has been in that state for 150 years. He is told that they can now heal his wounded body, but his wealth is gone and the world is not the same. The story ends with a choice he must make. He can either choose to remain in stasis, dreaming his perfect life, or he can awaken, poor and estranged from the world.
Walt Disney and Ted Williams
Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney was never cryogenically frozen. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. However, baseball hall of famer Ted Williams was. Ted Williams’s head and body are stored separately at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. After his death in 2002, his last will and testament was found to state that he wished to be cremated. His children from his second marriage had other plans. John-Henry and Claudia Williams insisted on chronically freezing him. Bobby-Jo Ferrell, his eldest daughter from his first marriage, sued her half-siblings in order to compel them to fulfill their father’s wishes. Soon after, John-Henry and Claudia produced a “family pact.” Scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin were instructions detailing his wishes to be placed in “Bio-Stasis after we die,” and had his signature, “Ted Williams.” Bobby-Jo also asserted that the napkin was fraudulent because her father always signed legal documents as “Theodore S. Williams.” There is also speculation into Alcor’s role in getting the former star at their facilities. A year before his death, Alcor representatives visited John-Henry but never spoke with Ted Williams. A copy of Alcor’s 7-page consent form for cryonic suspension doesn’t have any signature on it. Ultimately, it seems that money was the main motivator. Shortly after initiating the lawsuit, and after the signature was validated, Bobby-Jo settled for an equal share of her father’s trust fund.
More horrific allegations about the storage and treatment of Ted Williams have been made by Larry Johnson, former COO of Alcor. In his book, Frozen: My Journey Into the World of Cryonics, Deception and Death, he alleges that a circus-like environment surrounded the acquisition of Ted Williams. He details the circumstances at Alcor and how everyone, including family, gathered for photo shoots with the headless Hall of Famer. Johnson also alleges that Alcor, disgruntled about the money John-Henry owed for services, threatened to take Ted Williams out of stasis and throw him away. The story gets stranger still. He describes an incident with a monkey wrench and how it was used like a bat to dislodge a tuna can that was frozen to Ted’s head. After several missed swings, one smacked Williams directly in the head, and the can finally broke free. There have also been reports of several large cracks in Ted William’s head, some of which formed from fluctuating storage temperatures. However, the largest crack ironically occurred when they drilled holes in the skull to insert sensors that could detect cracks during the freezing process.
The Miracle Max Explanation
The science behind cryonics is somewhat akin to alchemy. For proof of this, one has to look no further than the Miracle Max explanation. In the movie The princess Bride, the main character, Westley, is thought to be dead. Inigo, a Spanish swashbuckler, needs Westley to help avenge the murder of his father and travels to Miracle Max’s for a cure. In one exchange with Inigo, Miracle Max replies, “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” As strange as it may seem, this is what proponents of cryonics believe. As a general rule, death is subjective and only brain death matters. However, even when brain death occurs there’s a caveat. Essentially, in the future, advanced technology will be able to restore any cellular function that was destroyed either by hypoxia, disease, the freezing process, or reperfusion. To sum it up, nearly everyone who dies is only “mostly dead.”
The Science of Cryonics: Unresolved Obstacles
One of the largest obstacles in cryonics is the freezing process itself. Freezing an organ, let alone an entire human, causes extensive damage. As temperatures approach freezing, extracellular and intracellular ice crystals form, resulting in crushing or rupturing of cells and damaging surrounding tissues. Cellular dehydration due to fluid migration is also a real concern. To minimize the negative effects of the freezing process, slow-freezing techniques are implemented (vitrification) and several cryoprotectants have been explored. In 1967, James Bedford became the first person to be cryopreserved. The cryoprotectant he was repeatedly injected with was dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). However, injecting and attempting to circulate DMSO throughout the body with chest compressions and a thumper(CPR assist device), as was the case with James Bedford, does little to mitigate damage from the freezing process.
Another major obstacle is how to minimize reperfusion injury. In a typical ischemic event such as a heart attack, a temporary loss of oxygen may cause severe damage to the brain and organs. However, reperfusion (restoring blood flow) can induce a cascade of inflammatory events and oxidative stressors, resulting in extensive damage that far exceeds the original ischemic event. Currently, reperfusion injury has been shown to contribute to a variety of adverse outcomes, including multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS) and death. It has been suggested that 30% to 40% of intensive care mortalities are due to MODS.
The Science of Cryonics: A Magical Future
When a person wishes to be interred at a cryonic facility, detailed instructions of how to handle the body and other legal paperwork must be addressed, some of which is suspect. Often, financial arrangements are made, including signing over one’s estate to pay for the procedure and long-term monitoring. For physicians, end-of-life instructions are outlined and typically include DNRs prohibiting lifesaving procedures. At the moment of death, “cardiac death,” the medical techs from the cryonic facility begin by stabilizing the body with anticoagulants. The next step is to supply the brain with oxygen and pack the body on ice, lowering the core temperature for transport. Once at the facility, vitrification can begin. Body fluids are replaced by a glycerol-based cocktail (cryoprotectant); this mixture may vary depending on the institution. Each institution’s glycerol cocktail is proprietary information and seldom discussed in detail. It’s like McDonald’s special sauce; you kind of know what’s in it but you’re never really sure.
Brain inflammation and oxygen deprivation can destroy tissue. At Alcor Life Extension, they claim that with their system, minimal damage occurs. On their Web site, they describe the process. It may vary depending on whether one is cryopreserving a head or whole body, and first they administer an anesthesia to lower brain metabolism. Next, an air perfusion kit is directly inserted into the aortic arch and right auricle of the heart, which keeps the brain oxygenated while lowering the temperature. Finally, when the temperature reaches near freezing, they begin fluid replacement with their special sauce. As an example of this cooling process, they refer to an experiment in 1986. In the experiment, dogs were resuscitated after 3 hours from total circulatory arrest at near-freezing temperatures. However, fatalities from complications attributed to systemic edema and central nervous system, pulmonary, or coagulation dysfunctions occurred in 9 of the 12 subjects. Another difference between that experiment and cryopreservation is that the dogs were subjected to near hypothermic conditions, at temperatures that were roughly 2°C. However, cryopreservation techniques include fluid replacement and temperatures that fall below -200°C.
Often, people confuse cryonics with cryogenics. Cryonics borrows from cryogenics but it is not subjected to the same rigors and is intrinsically based on assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true. When considering the validity of cryonics, one must examine its approach to the brain. The brain is the most important and the most delicate organ in the human body. With our current scientific knowledge, studying how the brain is affected by temperatures that approach absolute zero is impossible to do. The adult human brain has about 100 billion neurons with nearly 1018 connections, or roughly a billion billion connections. Let’s assume that their special sauce can permeate through all the areas of the brain and not destroy any cellular structures or functions. Let’s also assume that proper electro-chemical function can be restored without any degradation to action potential. Those assumptions in themselves require a leap of scientific faith and still don’t account for the very real probability of micro-fractures. Every axon, dendrite, terminal end, and synaptic junction is extraordinarily delicate. In the extreme temperatures of cryonics, micro-fractures are bound to happen. These micro-fractures may not affect the gross anatomy but can have devastating effects on the histopathology and function of the brain. Imagine a billion dendrite fractures, a billion axon fractures, another billion terminal end fractures, and synaptic junction issues. If only a billionth of the vital connections are severed, important brain function may cease. There is a high probability that autonomic function may never be restored even under optimal conditions.
Let’s now assume that restoring basic physiological function is something that can be done in say 100 or 1000 years. Restoring autonomic function, hormone regulation, and homeostasis may be achievable. For the most part, those systems are relatively standard—the human equivalent of a base model car. However, what’s not standard is who we are. Who we are is a process that is built up over time, with strong and weak neural connections. Our vast neural networks continually signal and reinforce one another, which ultimately create a unique pattern that differentiates each and every one of us. Genetics plays a role, but our experiences shape and define us. Without knowing and mapping each individual’s brain before the freezing process, how could science, even an advanced science, truly restore what they may not even know is missing? One day, it may be possible to resuscitate some of the people who are presently in deep freeze. However, they may have to relearn everything over from scratch. It may be easier, if one truly wishes some form of immortality, to simply freeze a few cells and create a future clone. The science behind cryonics is all too often whitewashed. Perhaps there is a simpler notion. One day, the dream of cryonics may be a reality. However, currently we don’t possess either the knowledge or technology, and we make too many assumptions.
Ethical and legal concerns
Just like the science, both the legal and ethical issues in cryonics have been whitewashed, and questions only lead to more questions without any resolutions. Science often involves screening processes. There aren’t any with cryonics except whether or not one can pay. A candidate may have a disease, like spongiform encephalopathy, and by the time of their death, their brain resembles Swiss cheese, potentially incurable. However, if they can pay, they can be frozen.
Other issues exist, like what happens when a facility closes its doors? There are reports of facilities that have gone out of business, and the bodies were either sent to their families or left to rot. In the Chatsworth disaster, journalists discovered that their clients were not stored in liquid nitrogen at all and were in various states of decomposition. Ethical issues similar to the ones touched upon in Vanilla Sky are complex and are also not addressed. Presently, in order to be frozen using cryonics, one must be declared legally “dead.” What would happen if you were to wake up in a world centuries from now—
- What would you do for money?
- Would your present occupation even exist centuries from now?
- If you had no family, where would you go?
- If you have great-great grandchildren, or distant relatives, do you become their responsibility?
- What are the responsibilities of cryonic centers with regard to your future self?
- Does the government have to provide a social safety net for the legally “dead”?
- What laws protect the recently, legally “dead” resurrected individuals?
- Will there be retraining programs and who would provide them?
- How would one adapt to a world that, in all respects, is foreign to them?
Often when people imagine what the future may hold, they conjure up images of a technologically and intellectually advanced society. Perhaps that may be our future; then again, perhaps not. Either way, what responsibilities does a cryonic center have for its occupants? Legally, they are not much more responsible than a cemetery; however, the expectations of its inhabitants are far higher than those in a cemetery. In the future, what will happen when the cryonic center goes out of business again? Do they send your body or head packed on ice to the closest living relative? Presently, cryonics is a business, and like all businesses, they turn a profit by selling a service or product. However, this particular business model does neither; it capitalizes on people’s vulnerability and fears.
- Alcor Life Extension Foundation Web site. http://www.alcor.org.
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- Can a human be frozen and brought back to life? Zidbits Web site. February 21, 2011. http://zidbits.com/2011/02/can-a-human-be-frozen-and-brought-back-to-life/.
- Darwin M. Medical records, medical history and the necessity for highly skilled cryonics-based medical evaluation and judgment. Chronosphere Web site. April 11, 2011. http://chronopause.com/index.php/2011/04/11/you-be-the-judge-understanding-and-evaluating-the-quality-of-human-cryopreservations-from-cryonics-organization-literature-and-case-report-data-part-4/.
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- Monette M. Spending eternity in liquid nitrogen. CMAJ. 2012;184(7):747-748.
- Moran J. What it costs to be cryogenically frozen. What It Costs Web site. http://outthere.whatitcosts.com/cryogen-frozen.htm.
- Ted Williams’ kids: bigger jerks than dad? Jobu’s Rom Web site. http://jobus-rum.com/ted-williams-kids-bigger-jerks-than-dad/.
- Vinton N. Book: Decapitation of baseball legend Ted Williams drew crowd at Alcor Life Extension Foundation. NY Daily News Web site. October 2, 2009. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/book-decapitation-baseball-legend-ted-williams-drew-crowd-alcor-life-extension-foundation-article-1.379933.
- Vinton N. Ted Williams’ frozen head for batting practice at cryogenics lab: book. NY Daily News Web site. October 2, 2009. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ted-williams-frozen-head-batting-practice-cryogenics-lab-book-article-1.381985.
- Walt Disney. Find a Grave Web site. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=284.
- What happened to Ted? Sports Illustrated Web site. August 12, 2003. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/news/2003/08/12/williams_si/.