Would you be cryogenically frozen when you die?

Do you remember Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? The film featured a US organised mission to Jupiter and three scientists are cryogenically hibernated on a spacecraft, having a long way to travel through space.

This science-fiction movie is now becoming a reality. We already have around 200 people cryogenically frozen, mostly in US. The most recent is a two-year-old girl from Thailand, Matheryn Noavaratpong, who was affected by brain cancer. The disease was discovered a year ago and in January her life support machine was switched off, but her parents decided to give her a chance at a future life. So her body was frozen and it’s now preserved in Arizona at the Alcor Society until a cure for her cancer can be found. This week the Alcor Society revealed that Matheryn was its 134th patient, the world’s youngest to undergo this treatment so far.

cryogenically freezing procedure
A patient is prepared for freezing at Alcor in Arizona. Putting cryoprotectant liquid in the body acts like anto-freeze and protects the cells, organs and issue from the effects of freezing.

The first human was cryogenically frozen more than 50 years ago, in 1967. It was the body of a psychology professor, who also died of cancer at the age of 72. His body is still at Alcor’s laboratory today.

[pullquote] “Now I’m close to the end of my life but, when I am revived, I will be just middle aged… I will live for 80 more years. [/pullquote]

At present, we are not yet able to revive hibernated people and nobody can foresee what kind of effects a human being will suffer after the cryonic process. In 1955 British chemist James Loveloch froze some rats for a while. When he revived them, they had suffered from very serious brain damage. In later decades some experiments were conducted on dogs, but results were scarcely successful.

cryogenically frozen people
Up to 5 patients are placed in an aluminium container, which is put in liquid nitrogen at -196°C for long term preservation

The treatment consists of switching blood with a liquid that protects your genes, cells, organs and tissues from the effects of freezing; then the body is put in a freeze cell at -196°C. Timing is essential. That’s why the major cryonic companies are in US, where they are allowed to act on bodies immediately after death (for example for organ harvesting). Instead, European law imposes a 24 hour wait.

So, people who decide to put their body in Alcor’s hands decide to bet on the future, searching for an elixir of life: “Now I’m close to the end of my life but, when I am revived, I will be just middle aged. In fact, in the 1300s life expectancy was 40 years, now is 80, in 2500 it will be 160 and I will live for 80 more years,” said Mr. Vitto Claut, an Italian solicitor who subscribed to the Alcor programme.

How much does this gamble cost? Prices are around $200,000. Companies provide all services, from transport to treatment and the preservation of the body. There is also a cheaper option, which costs around $80,000, called “head only”. In this case Alcor will preserve just your head and brain, expecting to be able to connect them to a new body created by tissue regeneration processes in the future. The brain is the place where memory and personality are based, and where they are supposed to stay even after cell de-icing.

Many legal and ethical issues accompany this technique’s developments. Alcor CEO Max More asserts that between life and death we need “a third category where the dead have rights. Right now, the patients are our property basically; they have no separate legal status. We regard our patients as people, but the law doesn’t—they are organ donations and tissue samples.”

[pullquote] “The number of people choosing the cryonics option has increased in the last few years… [/pullquote]

Another point raised is related to the skills of people born a half millennium before their hypothesised new life. What could they do in terms of jobs and social life? How obsolete will they be?

The number of people choosing the cryonics option has increased in the last few years, although there are many unsolved questions about it. Would you consider it? Or does just thinking about it give you chills?


Photos: Futurama Wiki/ Comedy Central and Alcor.org