Here I'll point out a good article on cryonics and its nuances in the online press; it includes thoughts from people working at cryonics providers, people signed up for cryopreservation, and advocates with various viewpoints. Like any community there are a range of opinions on what constitutes progress and the best strategy for moving ahead, and just as many motivations as there are individuals involved. What is cryonics? It is the low-temperature preservation of at least the brain as closely following death as possible. Early preservations in the 1960s and 1970s were a matter of straight freezing, and thus the preserved individuals are most likely characterized by extensive tissue damage due to ice crystal formation. Later preservations have used increasingly better forms of vitrification, in which cryoprotectants are perfused into tissues during the cooling process, resulting in the near absence of ice crystals and high quality preservation of fine structures. This is a technology that scientists are nowadays seeking to bring to the organ transplant industry, a way to revolutionize the logistics of that field by allowing indefinite reversible storage of donated organs for later use. It has been a few years since the reversible vitrification of a rabbit kidney followed by transplant and a few hours of function was demonstrated: work proceeds on pushing forward the state of art to the quality needed for everyday medical use, but this demonstrates the basic viability of the approach, provided the initial vitrification is of good quality. Similarly, maintenance of long term memory through vitrification and thawing has been shown in lower animals.
The point of this is life: the data of the mind is stored in fine structures in the brain, and at some point, future technology will include the necessary capabilities to restore a vitrified individual to life. That will require, at the least, a very mature and sophisticated regenerative medicine industry, incorporating rejuvenation biotechnologies after the SENS model, and equally capable applications of molecular nanotechnology to deal with the cryoprotectant and forms of damage that cells cannot handle on their own. For so long as the data is intact, the option remains for rescue at some future date. It is an open question as to the degree to which earlier cryopreservations have managed to save the individual. Ultimately reconstruction of a frozen, ice-crystal-damaged brain and its data will probably be possible, but will that be the same person if considerable extrapolation is required? Continuity of identity through the same structure associated with the data of the mind seems important, or else you become one of those folk who believe a copy of the self is the self - a dangerous idea, to my eyes. The technological side of the future of cryonics seems a safe bet. The risks all lie in whether or not you manage to obtain a good cryopreservation, and whether or not the storage company survives the intervening years. A lot of thought and effort has gone into these matters over the four decades that cryonics has been a professional concern; you can peruse the materials at Alcor's website for a sampling of it.
Thus cryonics is a wager as well as a so far small industry, a bet on technology continuing its upward trend. The odds are unknown, but infinitely better that those provided by any other end of life choice. We are heading into an era of rejuvenation therapies, but all too many people will run out of time before those therapies arrive. Are we barbarians, writing off these countless individuals? I would hope not. A fallback plan that offers some chance is better than a certainty of oblivion, and the more people who choose to sign up for cryonics, the better the chances become. A larger industry means more research and development, faster progress towards improved preservation techniques, more effective lobbying to change laws on euthanasia so as to make preservation a reliable, scheduled, low-cost event, and so forth. There is much that can be done to improve present matters, just as there is much that has been accomplished to make present day cryonics far more advanced over its beginnings.
Alcor Life Extension Foundation is the first and largest cryonics firm in the world. Its only true competitors are the Cryonics Institute located near Detroit - a 7,000-square-foot facility that currently hosts 100 preserved individuals - and KrioRus near Moscow - the world's first cryonics firm based outside the United States. Futurist Robert Ettinger came up with the idea of cryonics in the 1960s, but it was Frederick and Linda Chamberlain who formed a nonprofit organization in 1972 dedicated to cooling recently deceased people down to liquid nitrogen temperatures, and maintaining their bodies until it was possible to "reanimate" them. They called their new California-based organization the Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia - "Alcor" being a faint star in the Big Dipper. After dealing with some uncomfortable political squabbles and bureaucratic hurdles in California, the organization moved its operations to Arizona in 1990. Arizona offered a stable environment, free from earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters, and state laws that were more amenable to Alcor's unconventional activities.
Alcor may be a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), but it needs to be profitable to survive, and to ensure the long-term prospects of those preserved at the facility. The core staff of Alcor - all of whom are signed up - have a vested interest in the success of the company. Alcor CEO Max More says, "We want this for ourselves." Registering with Alcor comes at a price. To help pay for it, most clients take out a second life insurance policy and name Alcor as the beneficiary. To ensure that Alcor can take possession of the deceased, clients donate their bodies to the organization for scientific study. And yet, very few people are actually ready to go the distance. Around 2.6 million people die each year in the United States. Alcor, the world's leading cryonics institute, has only 1,569 full members after four decades - and that includes the 148 patients currently in cryostasis. Undaunted, More says that there will be a tipping point, that cryonics will "eventually be the norm" and even "a regular fixture of medical care." He sees hospitals of the future having the expertise and facilities to perform their own cryopreservations. He compared the slow buy-in to the length of time it took germ theory and open heart surgery to be accepted. "The current problem is that it's hard to sell something without a guarantee. We make absolutely no promises about our offering-and in fact, we even provide our clients with a lengthy list of all the things that could go wrong."
A surprising number of things can and do go wrong, from the moment death is declared to the lowering of a body into the shiny dewar. With advance warning of death, a standby team is dispatched to wait until clinical death has been declared. Within seconds, the patient is placed in an ice bath to start cooling, and a mechanical respirator is used to restart circulation. The goal is to maintain normal bodily processes, even after "clinical death" has been declared. Decomposition starts almost immediately. The team then administers 16 different kinds of medication, including propofol to suppress consciousness in the event that cardiopulmonary support unintentionally revives the patient. Even at this early stage in the process, the line that divides life and death is blurred. The other medications work to reduce metabolism and stave off other problems that occur when the body stops functioning. The idea isn't to freeze the body, but to take it down to slightly above the freezing point of water to prepare it for transportation to Alcor. This is the ideal scenario, but there can be catastrophically long delays. Each passing hour or day following clinical death means preservation will be that much lower in quality. As Alcor likes to say, "Time is trauma."
Sometimes, disapproving family members deliberately refrain from alerting Alcor that one of their clients has passed away, in direct violation of the recently deceased's wishes. If a person was crushed by a streetcar, there may not be much left to preserve. Likewise, an autopsy will almost certainly result in a seriously compromised cryopreservation. And if the person died of an aggressive brain tumor or neurodegenerative disorder, any memories or aspects of personality that were damaged by the disease will almost certainly not be restored at a future date. Once the body arrives at Alcor, it's quickly taken to the operating room. For whole-body preservations, surgeons connect all the major blood vessels of the heart to a heat exchanger (a device that lowers the patient's body temperature to a few degrees above the freezing point of water), and a perfusion machine, which delivers chemicals to the body. The idea is to wash out the body's blood and other fluids as quickly as possible, and replace them with a cryoprotectant. This high-tech gel is gradually added to the body to prevent ice crystal formation - the mortal enemy of biological sustainability. The quality of this process varies according to the state of the patient. Things tend to go smoothly for people with a fully-functioning circulatory system, but for others, who have had prior surgery or other conditions, this can lead to less than ideal conditions. Aneurysms and bleeding in the brain are not good.
Alcor prides itself on transparency and commitment to "evidence based cryonics," and it publishes detailed case reports for each preservation. These reports include notes about deficiencies and problems that happened during the process. Despite Alcor's strict protocols, there's no proof that its method of cryopreservation is actually working. For all we know, every single person at the facility is a goner. Alcor has published micrographs of cryogenically preserved brain cells on its website, and claim the images "demonstrate good structural preservation with dehydration artifacts, but no ice damage." But as More himself admits, they haven't been able to prove that the neural connections have remained intact, though he remains hopeful. Kenneth Hayworth, president and co-founder of the Brain Preservation Foundation and an expert in the burgeoning science of connectomics, is critical of Alcor's micrographs. Hayworth says that chemical fixation, in conjunction with cryonics, is the future of brain preservation, and that Alcor has it all wrong. Alcor, on the other hand, steadfastly believes that chemical fixation is a catastrophe. The process uses aldehyde to fix the brain in place, preventing any shrinking on account of dehydration (a serious problem during the cooling process). More says this is a big no-no because it's irreversible, and that this "destructive" form of preservation is not a true form of survival. He and others believe this process will essentially kill the individual - and all their biological bits - for all time. More admits that the resulting brain scans could help future scientists reconstruct an individual, but many Alcor members argue that it would be a mere copy of that individual. "Not a lot of people will accept that."
Aschwin de Wolf, the editor of Cryonics Magazine and CEO for Advanced Neural Biosciences, says it's good that Hayworth and others are holding Alcor to a high standard, because it pushes the science of cryonics forward. Having said this, he worries that Hayworth is rehashing old misconceptions about Alcor's techniques. "For a long time cryonicists were criticized for causing ice formation in the brain and now that we have eliminated this phenomenon through vitrification we are told that electron micrographs do not look like controls yet. We know this! Hayworth's position seems to be that a cryonics organization should only offer cryopreservation services if its electron micrographs are indistinguishable from controls. That seems an extreme and ethically troublesome position to me. As long as we have good reason to believe that the original state of the brain can be inferred from the altered state, offering cryonics services is not only reasonable but an ethical mandate."
Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason, has been an Alcor member since the 1990s, and he says it rarely crosses his mind. "It hasn't occupied very much of my attention or thought over the years. It's not some kind of part-time job that requires your constant attention." Simon Smith, a Toronto-based digital health marketer, husband, and father of two, has been an Alcor member for nearly a decade, and he concurs. "I think it's like a life insurance policy. A lot of people have life insurance policies, but they don't walk around thinking about them everyday." Smith is disheartened at the slow pace of technological development. An avid futurist and life extension advocate, he'd like to see more emphasis placed on technologies that will prolong human life, whether it be advances in pharmacology, biotechnology, molecular nanotechnology, or improvements to cryogenic techniques. But he remains optimistic. "The odds of reanimation being successful are better today than they've ever been and are continuously getting better, while the odds of coming back from burial, cremation or every other alternative remain the same."