Will Cryonically Frozen Bodies Ever Be Brought Back to Life?

1/15/2022 5:00:00 PM
Will Cryonically Frozen Bodies Ever Be Brought Back to Life?

Cryonicists hope that modern technology will one day bring them back from the dead. But how realistic is a second life after a deep freeze?

Cryonicists hope that modern technology will one day bring them back from the dead. But how realistic is a second life after a deep freeze?

Cryonicists hope that modern technology will one day bring them back from the dead. But how realistic is a second life after a deep freeze?

NewsletterIt’s said that one of the things that makes us human is our awareness of our own mortality, and for nearly as long as we’ve known that we’ll one day die, we’ve wondered about the possibility of waking back up. Stories about resurrection and immortality are found in countless religions and myths, and in recent years, many of these stories have hinged on the idea of cryonic preservation: freezing a body and then reanimating it in the future. If it worked for Han Solo, Captain America, and Fry from

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By Apr 6, 2021 3:30 PM (Credit: Dan/CC BY-SA 4.I am engaged in a delicate balancing act between psyching myself up and psyching myself out.Charboneau crossed the line to win in 17:36 , and described the race as a blur; as a marathoner, she’s used to racing for closer to three hours.checking the weather app on your phone on a cold day, it might say that the current temperature is 25°F, but “feels like” 15°F.

0/Wikimedia Commons) Newsletter Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news Sign Up It’s said that one of the things that makes us human is our awareness of our own mortality, and for nearly as long as we’ve known that we’ll one day die, we’ve wondered about the possibility of waking back up. Stories about resurrection and immortality are found in countless religions and myths, and in recent years, many of these stories have hinged on the idea of cryonic preservation: freezing a body and then reanimating it in the future. It is everything, really. If it worked for Han Solo, Captain America, and Fry from Futurama , why can’t it work for us? “[For] most cryonicists, there’s two things you’ll find. While some might want to stay inside and off their feet, for Charboneau, touring Disney World was the perfect way to keep her from focusing on the pressure of each upcoming race day. We are sci-fi lovers, obviously. My goal, right now, is to get myself as jacked up as possible, so that I can put everything I have into my final moments as a professional skier. We’re also optimists,” says Dennis Kowalski, the president of the Cryonics Institute, a non-profit based in Michigan and one of a handful of companies worldwide offering its line of services. “So it feels colder than it actually is.

That optimism is important, because cryonic preservation and reanimation is “100 percent not possible today,” according to Kowalski. The last thing I want is to crash and have that be how people remember me.” Related Story Charboneau dressed as Bing Bong from Inside Out. But, he says, “we're not at the zenith of all of our knowledge right now, and we certainly have more to learn and to discover in the future.” Kowalski, a former paramedic, cites modern life-saving interventions like cardiac defibrillation and CPR as examples of how science can drastically change — for most of human history, people generally agreed that there’s no way to save someone whose heart has stopped. The night before a race, I always go to bed visualizing the course—every gate, every bump, every piece of terrain. “And now,” he says, “it’s pretty darn routine.” Based on that premise — that someday, science will find solutions to biological damage that’s irreparable by today’s standards — the aim of cryonics is to keep bodies in a stable, preserved state until the necessary medical technology arrives. When I wake up, a lot of times I feel tired, because if I’m being honest, I’m not a morning person.” Brrrr.

Even to its staunchest adherents, cryonics isn’t a guarantee; Kowalski describes it as “an ambulance ride to a future hospital that may or may not exist.” But he views the field as a sort of Pascal’s wager — we’re definitely going to die, so if there’s even an outside chance of prolonging life through cryonics, there’s nothing to lose and potentially a second lifetime to gain. That’s when I start to get into my laser-focused mental state. How the Cryonic Process Works When someone who’s made arrangements to have their remains cryonically preserved is declared dead, a medical team cools the body with ice water and keeps the body’s tissues oxygenated using CPR and oxygen masks. The ice-cold body is put in a hermetically sealed container and flown to the cryonics facility. I’ve only been on the bike for about ten minutes, and already I’m feeling like I’ve put in enough time. (A note on nomenclature — freezing a cadaver is cryonics, not cryogenics. The whole calculation is based on the speed of body heat loss in various temperatures.

Cryogenics is the science and engineering of super-low temperatures. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the race to end or for my career to be over, but at the same time, I’m anxious to be on the snow, to inspect the course, to step into the starting gate.) At the cryonics facility, the team puts the body on a machine similar to a heart-lung bypass, circulating the blood and maintaining oxygenation. They pump in a vitrification solution that works like antifreeze to keep the body’s tissues from turning to ice crystals, in hopes of minimizing structural damage. It’s windy at the top, but the coaches on site tell me the race is due to go off as planned. Then, they slowly cool the body to -320 ℉ in a liquid nitrogen vapor chamber. Once it’s cold enough, the body is transferred to a Thermos-like tank of liquid nitrogen, where it’ll stay for the foreseeable future. I don’t ski the course, but the free runs let me feel the wind in my face, let me feel my body position.

The patrons’ fees ( around $28,000 per person ) maintain the institute’s endowment to keep the organization running in perpetuity. The bodies will wait in these tanks until medical technology (hopefully) is able to revive them. I want to ski. Kowalski says there are three challenges for this future tech to overcome: it’ll need to repair the damage done by freezing, cure whatever ailment originally killed the subject, and reverse the aging process so that the subject has a young, healthy body to enjoy in their second go-round. No one knows what that technology might look like; Kowalski’s best guess is tissue engineering and molecular nanotechnology that will be able to repair and replace damaged tissues. My routine is always exactly the same, a sequence that feels safe and familiar. Kowalski and his fellow proponents of cryonics recognize that it’s a tall order.

But if you ask most cryobiologists — scientists who study the effects of freezing temperatures on living tissues for procedures like in vitro fertilization, stem cell therapy, and organ transplantation — about cryonics, they’ll just shake their heads. In ski racing, there are so many variables. What Could Go Wrong “There is absolutely no current way, no proven scientific way, to actually freeze a whole human down to that temperature without completely destroying — and I mean obliterating — the tissue,” says Shannon Tessier, a cryobiologist with Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. When scientists attempt to freeze a sample of living human tissue, like a slice of liver, “the tissue is completely obliterated, the cell membrane is completely destroyed. It’s not like tennis, where the court is always the same dimensions. So there's actually no proof that you're preserving anything, and that's because the science is just not there yet.” There are animals that can survive being frozen and thawed, like Canadian wood frogs, but these organisms have evolved specifically to handle the pressures of freezing temperatures in a way that our bodies simply haven’t. I can’t control the snow or the ice or the wind conditions.

Tessier says it’s hard to imagine how our tissues could even withstand the process of being rewarmed, even with the benefit of a few centuries of scientific advances. “We did an experiment in the lab, a couple of years ago. I can’t control the competition. We tried to vitrify a porcine heart, a whole pig heart. And, of course, the technology currently does not exist to rewarm the heart fast enough and, literally, the whole heart cracked in half. My preparation is the one thing I can control, so I’ve always controlled it to a T.” The ability of our tissues to physically withstand freezing and thawing is just the beginning, says John Baust, a cryobiologist at Binghamton University, SUNY.

When our tissues are chilled, the part that freezes is mostly pure water — the cells, salts, and organic materials making up our fluids are excluded. I slip my headphones back on, close my eyes, and try to visualize the course. The left-behind cells undergo severe molecular stress. “There are genetic changes that occur,” says Baust, “that say to the cell, ‘ Die . There’s a huge open area where the tram unloads, so I stake out a private spot there to do my thing.’” These instructions for cell death, called apoptosis, start well before freezing temperatures are reached. “For those of us who work in the area of freezing biological materials — mammalian cells, tissues, we’ve tried organs, and so forth — there's just insurmountable problems,” says Baust. You don’t want to run into me during my warm-up.

Cryonicists like Kowalski are well-aware of these criticisms. He argues that while these problems are insurmountable to us today, they may well be solvable in the future. From here, I start to slowly amp myself up. It’s a point that’s definitionally impossible to rule out — almost like definitively proving that there’s no such thing as unicorns. “I don't think anyone really can deny what the future might hold,” says Baust. Today, though, I’m starting to embrace the idea that from this moment forward there is nothing to be gained by holding back. “I don't have all the answers.

But I think skepticism is very reasonable. These things no longer matter.” 'Nothing to Lose' Beyond arguments of what’s possible, or might be possible in the future, there lingers another question: even if you could be brought back, would you even want to? After all, you’d be stranded in a strange world, separated from everything that made your life worth living in the first place. Anders Sandberg, a philosopher at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, likens the prospect of revival to being “a temporal refugee — you can’t survive in the present, your only chance is to kind of exile in a foreign land. Advertisement As I complete my warm-up, we get word on the radio that the start has been moved down the hill to the third reserve start—the same place we started the super G on Tuesday— which is a dramatic shift.” But for Sandberg, an advocate of cryonics who every day wears a medallion inscribed with his cryonic instructions, “Life is worth living. I really enjoy being alive. This is a good thing for me, because the top part of the course has been the hardest stretch for my knee.

As long as that is true, I want to try to hang around. But it's of course a gamble. There’s a cat track you have to hike up for a stretch, and it’s a huge pain in the ass, so I start growing anxious and leave for the start way too early.” “You have nothing to lose, everything to gain. Other than some life insurance money. The clock can’t tick fast enough. And for me, it's worth it.

It gives me peace of mind,” says Kowalski, who is signed up for cryonic preservation along with his wife and sons. Then I start the jumping and the stomping. “Even if it doesn’t work, we’re still advancing science, figuring out what doesn’t work. And if it does work, oh my God, we just stumbled across a cure for death, at least temporarily. Apparently, when you slam your feet on the ground, it gets the neurological response going, gets your brain and your nerves firing.” .