Carrie Wong, President of the Lifespan Society of British Columbia which aims to protect and promote access to cryogenics, says: “I believe that my identity is stored inside my physical brain.”
“So if I can somehow preserve that, maybe at a future time technology and medical science will advance to such a point that it may be possible to repair the damage of freezing me in the first place and also what killed me back then,” she said.
The 27-year old also conceded that it could take hundreds of years for such a feat to be achieved.
“It’s not possible now, but nobody can really argue it’s not possible in the future because that’s arguing about what future technology is capable of.”
The whole notion of cryonic freezing was first theorized in a 1964 book called “The Prospect of Immortality” by Robert Ettinger, an American sci-fi writer and physics teacher.
He also started The Cryonics Institute (CI) in 1976 – a non-profit organization with a center near Detroit which houses 135 humans and 100 pets in tanks called cryostats.
A 73-year old psychology professor from California, Dr. James Bedford, was the first person ever to be cryonically preserved. His body was suspended in liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz. in 1967. But, Alcor’s most famous “patient” is baseball legend Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. After the slugger’s death in 2002, his head was detached and cryopreserved.
The Science of Eternal Life
The process of cryopreservation is a bit complicated. After a person is declared dead, the body is hooked up to a machine which artificially restores breathing and blood circulation. Various medications and blood thinners are added to the blood to make sure that the brain is well oxygenated.
Blood and other bodily fluids are then drained and replaced with a concoction of cryoprotectant chemicals. They are supposed to prevent vitrification – the creation of damaging ice crystals in the cells.
The body is then cooled down further, after which it is suspended in a cryostat at a chilly -196°C.
“The actual cryostats are just giant thermos bottles with liquid nitrogen, there’s no electricity to fail,” says Dennis Kowalski, President of the Cryonics Institute. Dennis is a 47-year-old paramedic and firefighter form Milwaukee who developed and active interest in cryonics after he read K. Eric Drexler’s “The Engine of Creation” in his 20’s. This 1986 book talks about a future where nanotechnology is commonplace.
Of the 1,250 who are signed up for CI’s services, a large percentage comprises of Canadians. The membership cost of US$28,000 is usually paid using life insurance policies.
Kowalski acknowledges that, often, people who choose to be frozen are “looked at as a bunch of kooks.” But, he calls it a clinical experiment which beats the alternative.
“I’ll be the first to admit it may not work. And everyone who’s signed up should understand cryonics may not work and there are no guarantees.”
In CI, bodies are placed upside-down to make sure that the brain is preserved for as long as possible in case of a catastrophe.
“We place emphasis on the importance of the brain because even under today’s crude technology, you probably could clone a human being and replace every single part,” says Kowalski. “But one thing you can’t replace is your mind — which is you — and your mind is somehow encoded in that brain, and that’s what we hope to principally save.”
Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia, prefers to stay away from cryonics.
“If there was some way to preserve people so they could get to the future, that would be a nice alternative to death as we know it,” says Hayworth.
“A lot of people are dedicated to doing it right,” he says. “At the same time, though, if you look at the level of evidence in the scientific literature —which is almost non-existent — there seems like there’s a tremendous gap between how good it should be in the year 2015 and what is actually being done.”
Freezing, however, is just the first step. Scientists are still working on ways to bring a person back to life after undoing the process of vitrification.
“The revival aspect is very far off in the future; I would put it at least 50 to 100 years off,” says the neuroscientist.
What does the Future Hold?
Christine Gaspar, a 42-year-old emergency nurse from Amaranth, Ont., is the president of the Cryonics Society of Canada, an advocacy and educational organization.
“My parents and my sister are also signed up. It took me about five minutes to convince my father and it took me about 15 years to convince my mother and my sister, but I finally got it done,” she says.
“I actually cryopreserved my cat two years ago (for a fee of US$5,800),” Gaspar reveals. “I know it sounds extraordinary, but if it’s something that you believe in philosophically, then you do it for what you love and who you love.”
She is also part of a group in the Toronto area which provides initial preservation in case a CI or Alcor member is dying. The idea is to get the process, which will then be continued by a trained funeral director. The body is then transported to the facility in Arizona or Michigan to complete vitrification.
Neither Alcor nor CI has a facility in Canada as of now.
Christine says that, in essence, cryonics is just another form of emergency medicine.
“What cannot be repaired today may be able to be repaired tomorrow. And instead of making a referral to a doctor in another city, you’re making a referral to a doctor in another time.”
She acknowledges that there is no way of knowing what sort of a society she will come back to, should a way to revive her be devised in the future. But, she doesn’t care.
“I can learn. I can adapt,” she said.
Freezing a body in the hope of reviving it in the future raises all sorts of moral and ethical issues, says Tim Caulfield, a law expert at the University of Alberta.
“What if the company goes bankrupt, 10 or 15 or 25 years from now? What happens to those bodies? Who has control over those bodies?” he asks.
“The science is very speculative at this point,” Caulfield insists. “That raises some interesting questions about marketing these services to people and having them invest significant portions of their money, their estate to these projects.
“People can do whatever they want with their money. But they should go in with their eyes open.”
To protect consumers, B.C. brought in regulations which prohibited the marketing of cryonic services on the expectation of being resuscitated at a later date – making it the only place in North America with such a law.
But, it is being challenged in a provincial court by the Lifespan Society. The case hasn’t been heard yet.
Keegan Macintosh, a co-plaintiff in the case, believes that he has the right to decide what happens to his body after he dies. The drama and public-speaking instructor from Vancouver has assigned Alcor life-insurance benefits worth US$80,000 for pragmatic reasons.
“It’s as simple as the fact that I love life. For now I don’t foresee a time in the future where I won’t want to wake up for another day,” says Macintosh, while dismissing the notion that people who turn to cryonics are seeking immortality.
Even though the science behind cryonics is still new, Macintosh thinks that it is worth the risk.
“Maybe the chances aren’t very big, but they’re big enough for me to place my chip there.
More and more Canadians are choosing to have their brain or body frozen using liquid nitrogen in the hope of coming back to life in the future with their personality, memories and sense of self intact. Many people choose to pay for this procedure using their life insurance, which opens up new avenues for insurers.