Cryonics, or the freezing of a living organism over a long period of time in hope to restore life to it at a future time, is no longer just a myth from the world of fiction presented to us on the television. This practice is used to preserve the lives of those who cannot be treated by modern medicines and so hope to continue their lives when technology and advancements permit them to do so.
Although the technology is still in its infancy, great advances have been made in the recent decades which have enabled us to understand what techniques and procedures are needed to perform both a successful freezing and revival.
With the technology and knowledge we have today only part of the procedure can actually be carried out. Although the freezing is possible and has been performed successfully, the reviving has never been performed because of one reason: the technology has not yet been developed. This could take years, decades or even centuries.
Some may think that cryonics is still only science fiction and that the frozen bodies stored in the – 196°C conditions in Arizona, USA are of no use but, the science behind the procedure is feasible. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation states on their website that cryonics can indeed be justified.
The stopping and restarting of life may seem unnatural and abnormal to most. However, the necessary procedures have been carried out thousands of times. Human embryos are preserved for years at a time at temperatures which completely stop biological activities. Later on they are defrosted and grow into perfectly healthy human beings. Fully grown adults have also survived cooling to low temperatures which stop all heart and brain activity.
When we use the term freezing what is really meant is vitrification. The difference is in the process; vitrification is an ice-free process and so during the procedure a majority of the water inside the human body and cells is replaced by special protective chemicals. This replacement means that freezing is prevented and instead molecules just move slower and slower until all biological reactions stop at approximately -124°C. What makes this different to freezing is that there is no ice formation. Ice formation can damage tissue permanently leading to problems when reviving.
The process begins by the patient being placed in an ice bath when their heart stops beating. A mechanical resuscitator restores the breathing and circulation. Anaesthetic, along with a concoction of other chemicals, is then supplied to the body via intravenous (within a vein) methods. These have no real purpose now but are to help prevent injury to the brain during reviving. The patient is then connected to a heart-lung machine while a heat exchanger is used to reduce the body temperature.
Major blood vessels near the heart are then accessed and a solution is used to wash out any remaining blood. The next process takes about three hours and involves the patient being cooled to -124° C by fans circulating nitrogen gas around the body. The end product is a vitrified patient rather than a frozen one. Further cooling then takes place in the next two weeks which takes the temperature down to a chilly -196°C. Finally, the body is stored indefinitely in liquid nitrogen until the reviving.
At the start of the process it is mentioned that the ordeal begins when their heart stops beating. This may seem a little strange; however, cryonic suspension is actually illegal when performed on someone who is still alive. This means that the patient needs to be pronounced legally dead before the procedure can begin. However, this does not cause a great deal of fuss to the scientists as a legal death is not the same as a total death. Legal death takes place when the heart stops beating while total death takes place when all brain activity stops. Cryonics preserves the cell functions and so resuscitation can still be performed as long as brain and cell activity remain. To this date over 85 patients have used the services at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and have been stored in liquid nitrogen. Amongst these is the famous baseball legend Ted Williams who “died” in 2002. Some argue that this is all a huge con as the company is simply taking people’s money without a promise of resuscitation. No successful reviving procedures have taken place yet and none are expected in the near future. So if you are interested in having yourself preserved in a container surrounded by liquid nitrogen at -196°C then you only need a mere $28, 000 (£17,000) lying around – but don’t expect a 28 day money back guarantee.
Taken from “Life” Magazine Winter Special 2009