Cryogenically frozen dead people are held preserved in a clinic at Scottsdale, Arizona in the hope that maybe someday science would be advanced enough to bring them back to life. This unique cryonics clinic is run by Alcor Life Extension Foundation, and surprisingly, many people, including some famous personalities like PayPal co-founder Peter Theil, are actually spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their bodies preserved here after death.
The idea of waking up in the future sounds like a great plot for a sci-fi movie or a novel but through cryonics, organizations like Alcor are trying to do the same in reality. Max Moore, a futurist and the former CEO of Alcor, believes that people can be rescued from death. “Our view is that when we call someone dead it's a bit of an arbitrary line. In fact they are in need of a rescue,” he said in an interview. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Alcor is not the only cryonics clinic preserving dead bodies for revival in the future.
What is cryonics and how a dead body is preserved forever?
Cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of a newly-dead body or the severed head of an individual. To compare, freezing a dead body is called cryonics, the science of super-low temperatures is called cryogenics. In cryonics, the body is stored at temperatures below −130 degrees Celsius in the hope that some advanced technology or nanotechnology would be able to resurrect the person in the future. To protect the body parts from any damage during the freezing and storage, cryonics practitioners use cryo-protectants and cryo-preservation, which can be considered similar techniques to those used to keep the body organs of an organ donor from decaying after their death.
For those who have signed up for cryonics, an emergency cryonics response team takes control of the body after they are declared medically dead. Within hours of death, they pack the body in ice and ensure that oxygen and blood supply to the brain. The team injects heparin into the body so that your blood does not coagulate while they transport it to a cryonics facility from the place of death.
At the cryonics facility, the body is put on a machine that circulates the blood and maintains oxygenation, similar to a heart-lung bypass machine. A vitrification solution is pumped in. This is a cryo-protectant and it works like antifreeze to keep the body’s tissues from turning to ice crystals during freezing. This is needed because, when your body is frozen, the ice crystals can rupture cells and cause damage to tissues and organs.
The body is then slowly cooled to around -320℉ (-195°C) using a liquid nitrogen vapor chamber; once it’s cold enough, the body is transferred to a tank of liquid nitrogen where it will be stored at around -320.8℉ (-196°C) in an inverted position. The aim here is to prevent any damage from occurring in the brain even if there is a leak. During the time the body is stored in liquid nitrogen containers, cryonicists argue that the cells are believed to remain in a dormant state.
Can cryonics really make people immortal?
Though famous personalities like Paris Hilton, Peter Thiel, Steve Aoki, Robert Miller, and many others are reported to look forward to having their bodies cryopreserved, it is a controversial topic among the scientific community. People who advocate cryonics consider the technique a way to overcome death, but on the other side, there are scientists who claim that cryonics is nothing but a pseudoscience, giving people false hope in the name of technology.
According to Max Moore, Alcor is not a hope monger. “Scientific evidence was no more a prerequisite than hope for believing in an afterlife. For members ... that's enough to pay for”, said Moore to NBC News.
Dennis Kowalski, president of the Cryogenics Institute in Michigan, believes that cryonics may sound like sci-fi but it is ultimately an optimistic technology. In favor of cryonics, he says, “you have nothing to lose, everything to gain other than some life insurance money, and for me, it's worth it”. Kowalski himself, his wife, and his children have also enrolled to undergo cryopreservation after their deaths.
The different points of view that researchers and cryopreservation experts have for cryonics can perhaps be understood through examining a court case that emerged in the UK.
In November 2016, a 14-year UK girl referred to as JS passed away due to a rare form of cancer. Before dying, she left a note saying that her last wish is to have her body cryopreserved so that in the future she might be revived. The note read, in part, “I don’t want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish.”
The mother of JS wanted to fulfill her daughter’s last wish, but her estranged father opposed it. Eventually, JS's last wish led not only to a legal dispute between her parents, but also divided the scientific community in the UK as to the speculative nature of cryonics.
Responding to the case, cryobiologist Ramon Risco told The Guardian that while cryonics is currently an unbelievable concept, just like "test-tube babies" or space travel once was, it should not be considered an impossibility. He believes that in five to 10 years experts will likely have progressed enough to revive small mammals after preservations in liquid nitrogen. “It is very risky to say that anything is impossible in science or technology in the 21st century – people who use the word impossible are very brave,” he said. “If you are looking for the truth, why would you put barriers up?”
Risco also argued that many scientists are against cryonics because supporting this idea could endanger their careers. He said, “There is an enormous ‘stigma bias’ to the conversation about cryonics among scientists. For scientists who would like to discuss it open-mindedly, it tends to significantly hurt their career – in fact, can potentially even get them kicked out of their scientific societies”.
Clive Coen, a leading neuroscience professor from King’s College, London was one of those who opposed the high court’s decision to allow the cryopreservation of JS. Professor Coen argued, “ethically it’s very complicated. The trade-off is that she got the comfort, but others may now be duped." He even demanded a complete ban on cryonics marketing.
Renowned cosmologist Martin Rees also raised concerns on the practicality and ethical issues pertaining to cryonics. He suggested that cryonics enthusiasts cannot be believed, because the claims made by them are ridiculous. Even many supporters and cryonics experts also admit that there is a chance some companies might take advantage of people’s vulnerability in the name of cryopreservation.
For now, there is no scientific evidence that completely approves or explains the possibility of a new life in the future through cryonics. As far as legal issues are concerned, U.S. law does not treat cryopreservation and organ donation as two different things. As per the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), practices like cryonics are similar to a scientific experiment, for which people willingly donate their bodies and organs.
This also implies that organizations such as the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonics Institute cannot be held responsible if they are unable to revive clients in the future after undergoing cryopreservation.
Some interesting facts about cryonics
Instead of being buried or cremated after death, thousands of people from different parts of the globe have signed up for cryopreservation. However, this is not the only surprising fact related to cryonics.
On January 12, 1967, American psychologist Dr. James Bedford underwent cryopreservation soon after his death. He was the first person in the world who decided to do so, and his frozen body is still resting at Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.
Anyone can cryopreserve their entire body at Alcor for $200,000, or just the head for $80,000. Surprisingly, the Cryonics Institute only charges $28,000 to cryopreserve a human body. When asked about this huge price gap, a representative from Alcor revealed that a major part of their fee is spent to support their patient care trust fund which funds the maintenance of the facilities until such time as revival is possible.
American baseball player Ted Williams was also cryopreserved at Alcor. The idea of cryonics has been quite popular among celebrities; for example, DJ Steve Aoki has not only signed up for cryonics but also endorsed Alcor.
The number of bodies stored at Alcor has grown at a rate of around 8% a year. The oldest stored body is a 101 years old woman and the youngest is just 2. One in four of Alcor's customers live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
KrioRus, a cryonics company in Russia also allows its clients to cryopreserve their pets. Recently, the founder of Krio Rus, Danila Medvedev, accused her ex-wife Valeria Udalova of raiding the company’s cryonic storage facility and stealing liquid nitrogen containers containing frozen dead bodies.
Cryonics has been a controversial subject. There is a possibility that, except for the frozen dead bodies, no one might ever be able to witness their revival, or perhaps, they may never come back to life.