The idea that a body can be frozen, only to be revived years later, is a seductive one. For years people believed that Walt Disney had been frozen after his death, while films like Austin Powers, Demolition Man, Aliens and Forever Young helped popularize the idea of life after death. But 50 years after the first man was cryogenically frozen, is it still anything but a pipe dream?
Why are people talking about cryogenics?
In the U.K. it emerged on Friday that a terminally ill 14-year-old girl was granted the right to have her body frozen after her death, in the hope that one day scientists will figure out how to bring her back to life.
The girl, who died from a rare form of cancer shortly after the request was granted by the High Court in London, was then transferred to a facility in the U.S. where her body will be stored.
How does the process work?
The team charged with freezing the body needs to be present when the person dies, as speed is imperative if the procedure is to work. Once the person has died, their heart is kept pumping to continue to provide oxygen to the brain.
The body is then cooled, typically using ice-baths, and the body injected with anticoagulants and other chemicals to prevent blood clots and damage to the brain. The temperature of the body is then lowered to just above the freezing temperature of water.
The blood is then drained from the body and replaced by an “cryoprotectant” fluid which prevents ice-crystals from forming — a process known as vitrification. The bodies are then cooled to -130C before being transferring to a storage facility where they are lowered into a tank of liquid nitrogen and kept at -196C.
Where are the bodies stored?
The only countries that currently permit bodies to be stored in a cryogenically frozen state are the U.S. and Russia. In the case of the 14-year-old girl, her body will be held at a facility in Michigan.
Does it work?
Yes, if all you want to achieve is having your body frozen. If you are hoping to be revived at some point in the future, then the answer to that is no — for now. Even if the body was successfully thawed, experts point to inevitable cell damage, organs that would no longer work, and a worry that the human body would be so brittle from the cooling process that it would smash like glass.
Dr Joao Pedro De Magalhaes, a Senior Lecturer in ageing at the University of Liverpool, told VICE News that this case probably won’t herald an increase in the number of people signing up for the treatment. “Cryonics has had historically quite a lot of media attention, and yet few people still sign up. The major problem in cryonics is that people are skeptical of whether it will work, and rightly so I would say given that cryopreservation does not work for large human organs or even for small mammalian models. So I think to really see a big shift in the practice of cryonics will require technical breakthroughs.”
Is there any hope?
Some people believe that rather than preserving our entire bodies, we should be focusing on preserving our brains by downloading all the data from them — a theory explored in the film Transcendence last year.
“As a head, my life would be limited, but by then we will be able to make real connections to computers,” Anders Sandberg from the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, said in an interview in 2013. “So my hope is that, once revived, my memories and personality could be downloaded into a computer.”
Of course, trying to encode the untold connections between the human brain’s 100 billion neurons may be as futile a task as trying to revive a frozen corpse.