How to Freeze Your Brain and Live Forever (Maybe)

Companies have refined cryonics technology to better preserve peoples' brains after death. But so far, no one knows how to turn a cryogenically frozen​ brain back into a living person.

The Alcor operating room, ready to receive a patient. Photo courtesy of Alcor Life Extension Foundation

Josh Bocanegra has a vision for the future, and it involves eternal life. Bocanegra, the CEO of tech startup Humai, announced in November that his company will be able to "resurrect the first human within 30 years," by freezing peoples' brains in liquid nitrogen and transplanting them back into bionic bodies in the future. The first step is an app called Soul, which will learn everything about the person while they're still alive, so as to better replicate them once their carefully-preserved brain is transplanted.

While Humai's stated approach is somewhat novel, they're not the first seek a cure for death through science. The primary vehicle in the pursuit of immortality has been cryonics: freezing people in liquid nitrogen, in the hopes that they can one day be safely defrosted and revived. Wayne State University teacher Robert Ettinger is widely credited with starting the cryonics movement with his 1962 book The Prospect of Immortality, in which he wrote: "Sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us."

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The first organization to explicitly practice cryonics was the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, founded in 1972. Ettinger followed suit and founded the Cryonics Institute (CI) in 1976 in Clinton Township, Michigan along with three others. Alcor and CI are today the main providers, with 279 "patients" between them in storage. (They use the term "patients" to indicate their disagreement with the current medical and legal definition of death.) Alcor charges $200,000 to store a full body in perpetuity, and $80,000 for just the head (referred to as "neuropatients"). CI charges $28,000 and only offers the full body option because they believe it offers better survival chances, and because they fear the practice of decapitation has "negative effect on the public's perception of cryonics."

Cryonics is based entirely on the hope that future scientific advances will be able to make use of these bodies and severed heads to achieve "life after revival." Nothing close to a proof of concept exists so far. Cryonics advocates like to point out that there's nothing inherently infeasible about the prospect, but at the same time, providers have to be prepared to wait centuries before they achieve their goals.

"It's unlikely that someone preserved today will be revived before around 2100. The technology for uploading a person is really, really hard." — Kenneth Hayworth

Perhaps the most well-known body in cryopreservation is that of baseball player Ted Williams, who died in 2002. His body now hangs in a tank of liquid nitrogen and his head is stored separately in a steel can at Alcor's facility in Arizona. Kim Suozzi, a 23-year-old neuroscience student, also received notoriety after she successfully crowdfunded the fee to have her head stored by Alcor in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Alcor Life Extension Foundation

But Alcor and the other companies haven't yet figured out exactly how to turn a cryogenically frozen brain back into a living person. Recently, the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) announced a $100,000 prize for the first person who can develop a way to preserve an entire human brain for more than 100 years (something they doubt Alcor is currently able to do). The technique will be tested on both small and large mammals to demonstrate its potential for humans.

As of now, the entry that seems to be closest to winning the prize isn't exactly cryonics, but rather a new brain-banking technique where brains are removed before death and are treated with both a cryoprotective agent and a chemical fixative. Then, they're stored at room temperature.

Kenneth Hayworth, one of BPF's co-founders and a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, considers this proof that brain preservation is "technically possible," but he says significant research is needed.

"It's unlikely that someone preserved today will be revived before around 2100. The technology for uploading a person is really, really hard," he told me. "None of these techniques are going to revive someone without really advanced technology."

There's also a legal mandate to wait until someone is dead before freezing their brain, which Haywoth says damages the quality of the brain tissue. He thinks that Alcor and CI have "given up on the idea of society and the medical community accepting cryonics," but he's holding out for changes that will allow people to preserve their brains before they die, as part of a continuum of care offered by healthcare providers everywhere.

"The way that I think these people will be revived is that their minds will be uploaded into synthetic brains and bodies," he told me. The idea is that as long as the brain's synaptic connectivity is kept intact enough for extremely high resolution imaging, that will allow for the eventual ability to access someone's memories.

Given that even the most optimistic expectations suggest this technology is at least a century away, it seems like a tricky sell. I asked Hayworth what he would tell someone considering preservation even though the outcome is uncertain. Should their loved ones mourn them? Or should they be viewed as the "patients" cryonics vendors would have us believe they are? "I would counsel them to feel that they are going to be alive in the future," he said, adding that "there's a good chance they're not coming back."

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