Credit: Charles D Winters
For the longest time, sci-fi films have put the idea of being frozen, to live long enough to see the future, into our heads. But this begs the question, how close are we to this actually happening?
There are people who have been cryogenically frozen in the hopes of surviving until the time their illnesses can be cured. The truth however, is that the process is not as simple as it has been made out to be and successful reanimation has not yet been performed.
It seems simple. Cool the body to liquid nitrogen temperature (-196˚C), and physical decay should stop. It relies on the patient being legally dead, due to strict laws, but not biologically dead. This essentially means that the heart has stopped beating but brain function has not completely stopped. The problem lies with the water content of the body. As water expands when it freezes, it would destroy the cell membranes, killing the cell. Water must therefore be removed from the cell and replaced with a cryoprotectant – a glycerol based mixture which hinders the formation of ice crystals. The body is then cooled with dry ice until it reaches around -130˚C, and inserted into a tank filled with liquid nitrogen for the long term storage.
It is a very expensive process and there are currently fewer than 200 people frozen around the world. The first was a psychology professor in 1967. The most famous was American baseball player Ted Williams who died in 2002. The laws surrounding the process are very strict but there have been some controversial stories surrounding some patients. The most concerning involved the mother of one of the board members of a cryogenic freezing facility. Dora Kent came down with pneumonia in 1987 and was supposedly taken to a facility to be frozen upon her death. She was frozen immediately without a doctor present. After a coroner, an government official who certifies the death of a person, inspected her headless body (apparently removed for scientific purposes), he first agreed with the cause of death. However, not long after the inspection he reversed the decision and accused the company of murder. It was eventually found that she had died of natural causes but the case cast a shadow over the still developing process.
Another, slightly cheaper, form of cryogenics is neuropreservation. This involves removing and preserving only the heads of patients. It makes it sound like the talking heads of past historic figures often seen in Futurama may someday be possible. As good as this sounds, current scientists only hope that the brains of these patients will survive long enough so that process of cloning a new body or regeneration of their own body could be possible at some point in the future. This process relies on the only important information worth keeping, found in the brain, meaning it is questionable whether the patient will be the same person once unfrozen.
There are a lot of myths surrounding cryogenics. The biggest myth concerning the process itself is believing that people are just frozen in ice when it is actually entirely ice-free. The most famous myth is that the body of Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen after his death in 1966. It was true that he had spoken of his wish to be frozen, but he had never put it in writing. He was cremated a mere two weeks before the first ever person was cryogenically frozen.
Another misconception is that the process causes no damage. The technology currently used is not without flaws. The best case scenario so far, from one organ being cryogenically frozen and regenerated, is only five fractures being found. This leaves many with questions about how much damage it could do to an entire body. However, companies emphasise that we are not yet ready to attempt the reanimation process, rather waiting on future technology to have improved enough to be able to repair any cellular damage caused by the process, as well as curing the cause of death. There have been suggestions that we are not far from this stage with ongoing advancements in nanotechnology, predicting human revival could take place as early as 2045.
It seems that someday we may be able to revive those who have been frozen but who knows how many of them will be left. But if you can save $200,000 before your death, it could be you waking up to a world of flying cars and robots.