The Creepy, Insane, and Undeniably Romantic World of Cryonics

The Creepy, Insane, and Undeniably Romantic World of Cryonics

I went into it a skeptic—and I still don’t think it’ll work. And yet I’m sold.
April 30, 2017, 2:06pm

I'd expected to hear a lot of convincing arguments that would persuade me to sign up to have my body cryogenically frozen when I die, but proving that I'm more rational than Paris Hilton wasn't one of them.

"About ten years ago there was a rumor going around that she had signed up to have her body preserved, so my colleagues and I worried that perhaps Paris Hilton was more rational than us," says Anders Sandberg, a research fellow with the University of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute. Sandberg is an expert on human "enhancement" who himself is signed up to be frozen one day.

On one level, of course, doing anything because Paris Hilton pressured you into it is a really bad idea, Sandberg admits. "But we humans are emotional beings, so the fact that some of our Oxford academic pride was wounded really did spurn us to bite the bullet."

As insane, or perhaps creepy, as it sounds, hundreds of people in the US are 'frozen,' stored in stainless steel chambers at a cozy -196°C in liquid nitrogen. Their cases are checked daily while they're kept "in stasis," as cryonic believers call it, waiting until new medical technologies can cure or repair whatever ailed them, whether it be a heart attack, dementia, or perhaps even cancer. At the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale Arizona, 150 "patients" are frozen in time, and another 996 have signed up for the same fate.

The Cryonics Institute in Clinton township, Michigan holds a similar number—150 humans, plus more than 100 pets. "Maybe the idea of reviving people who are cryogenically frozen sounds far-fetched, but in my field, you know that you can bring back the dead all the time," says Dennis Kowalski, a director at the Cyronics Institute who works as a paramedic by day. "I've been able to take a lot of what I learned from emergency medicine and integrate it into cryonics. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Death is a process, and we simply slow that process down. I like to say that we provide the ambulance to the hospital of the future."

Moreover, Sandberg points out, there are thousands—if not millions—of people alive today who were once frozen sperm or egg cells, or frozen embryos. "In a sense, those people were cryonically frozen, and yet they are today alive," he says. Moving up in size, scientists demonstrated last year that embryonic rabbit kidneys could be frozen, thawed, and grown into full-sized and fully functional organs, capable of transplant into living animals.

In the wild, Canadian wood frogs annually freeze solid, thanks to special proteins in their blood that act as a natural antifreeze and prevent the formation of ice crystals that would cause cell damage—so it is theoretically possible for an entire body to be kept below freezing temperature and later revived. Cryonisists have already been replicating this strategy for decades: All preserved bodies are not technically "frozen," because all the blood is drained out the moment they legally die, and slowly replaced with a biological antifreeze (along with a cocktail of more than a dozen different drugs) that perfuses into the body and prevents ice crystals from forming and damaging cells. Hence why a body that would be a toasty 32°C can be kept at -196°C potentially indefinitely. But sperm, eggs, kidneys, and frogs are one thing. What about that most human of organs, the brain? There's no point in being revived if your memories, knowledge, and personality don't come with you.

Read the full story at Tonic.