Cryogenic Freezing: Can Science Bring You Back to Life?

Death may free you from the burden of life’s many decisions—as Sophocles put it, “For the dead, there are no more toils,” but shedding your mortal coil involves a host of pre-mortem considerations such as what do with that coil once you have shed it. Fortunately, there are a number of options for corporeal management. While most Americans choose the traditional path—the odds that a dead person will be buried in a casket are 1 in 1.38 (72%)—there is also cremation, anatomical donation, and the increasingly popular, albeit chillier choice, cryonics.

Cryonics is the practice of using extreme cold to preserve a recently deceased or seriously diseased person with the hope that, one day, scientists will figure out how to “reanimate” them and cure their afflictions. Far from established science, cryonics is a theoretical discipline that requires patients (called cryonauts) and their loved ones to place their trust in scientific advancement. In return they get a chance at immortality.

Because the success or failure of cryonics depends on technology of the future, scientists place cryonics—alongside cold fusion and time travel—somewhere between science and fiction on the plausibility scale. One of the main scientific concerns regarding cryonics has to do with the formation of ice crystals in the patient’s cells as his or her body is cooled to around a frosty -200 degrees Celsius. Although antifreeze solution is used to reduce the formation of these crystals in patients, they occur nonetheless and cause serious tissue damage—think freezer burn. Cryonics proponents justify this damage by reasoning that future science will eventually be able to repair it.

But cryobiologists argue that a new technology called vitrification may allow whole body preservation without damaging tissue. Cryonic vitrification involves replacing a patient’s blood with a unique antifreeze cocktail that prohibits ice formation and suspends cells in a random, glass-like state. However, reanimating vitrified tissue remains highly problematic and has only been achieved with single human cells. Reanimating an entire vitrified patient is beyond our present scientific understanding.

In the US, the largest operating cryonics companies are Alcor, which is currently storing 89 human patients, and Cryonics Institute which has 95. And cryonics is not limited to human patients; you can freeze a beloved animal companion as well. In fact, for $5,800 you can cryopreserve your cat at Cryonics Institute, which has 64 pet patients.

Based on aggregated 1980-2007 numbers, the odds that a person who has died will be cryogenically frozen at Alcor are 1 in 883,200—slightly lower than the odds that an accidental death will be the result of noise exposure, which are 1 in 864,700.

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