Cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of at least the brain following death, leaving open the possibility of restoration to life in a future in which molecular nanotechnology and total control of cellular biochemistry are mature industries. As individuals, each of us is the data of the mind, no more, no less, and that data is stored in the form of fine physical structures, most likely those of the synapses connecting neurons. If that structure is preserved sufficiently well, then the individual is not yet gone - only ceased for the moment. Early cryopreservations involved straight freezing to liquid nitrogen temperatures, and this likely caused great damage to the structures of the brain due to ice crystal formation. Modern cryopreservations use cryoprotectants and staged cooling to achieve vitrification of tissues with minimal ice crystal formation. There the degree of damage is much reduced, contingent on sufficient perfusion of cryoprotectant and the quality of the other aspects of the process. These technologies are also under development by groups in the organ transplantation and tissue engineering communities: reversible vitrification of organs would solve a great many logistical problems. From the present state of the science, that goal isn't very far distant. Proof of concept vitrification, thawing, and transplantation of mammalian organs has taken place in the laboratory. Even without present reversibility, however, the merits of cryonics stand: people who are preserved are not dead and gone, just dead, with a chance to return. A chance of unknown size, yes, but that is a big improvement over the grave and certain oblivion.
Cryonics suffers from being a small industry. People encountering the concept for the first time tend look at it askance because it is a small community and thus not the usual end of life choice. Then they make up reasons in their own minds as to why it won't work, or is stupid, or illogical, or otherwise wrong, simply because it is not the norm. It takes multiple exposures to a topic for most people to come around and actually engage with what is known rather than with their own knee-jerk reaction to the topic. In the normal run of things, however, few people actually encounter the ideas of cryonics; it doesn't get all that much press, and since it is such a small industry and surrounding community, few people encounter those involved as they make their way through life. Thus public awareness and understanding of the long-standing cryonics industry seems to advance by a series of infrequent great leaps rather than ongoing incremental gains, each such leap driven by the high-profile cryopreservation of a sympathetic or noted individual that attracts a short-lived mob of press attention. First there is a flood of commentary from those who know next to nothing of cryonics and are quick to condemn it for being different, then a following wave of more thoughtful commentary, for and against, and finally some few of the many people who read the coverage choose to dig further, peruse some of the mountain of literature written on cryonics over the past 40 years, and conclude that cryonics does make sense and is a good idea. So the community of supporters and those signed up as members of a cryonics organization grows a little.
The latest leap forward was spurred by the cryopreservation of a terminally ill young lady in the UK, unusual for its surrounding legal case regarding consent and self-determination. The UK has a cryonics support organization, as is the case for many countries, but like most parts of the world lacks a cryonics provider. This may be why so much of the initial commentary has been from those fairly new to the idea, and has been unusually hostile in tone when compared to the media attention of the past five years or so. Being the UK, there is also a considerable focus on regulation, since the bias over there, in the media at least, is very much towards the idea that nothing must ever happen without government involvement - all that is not explicitly allowed is forbidden, any new endeavor must be quickly regulated by a new government office, and so forth. Sadly the US has been heading in that direction quite energetically since the turn of the century; it has been a sad thing to watch taking place. Cultural differences aside, many cryopreservations are carried out under difficult circumstances, and this was one of them. The ideal preservation takes place at the cryonics provider location, or very close by, within a known window of time, and cooldown is rapid following death so as to minimize damage. Departures from that ideal have a cost, both monetary and in the quality of the preservation, but the people involved here by all accounts did the best possible under the circumstances, hampered by the existing regulatory environment that prevents near every possible approach that could make things easier, cheaper, and more reliable.
Below find a very small selection of the recent attention given to this case. There is a lot more out there, if you are interested enough to go looking, ranging from ignorant and hostile to thoughtful and considered. The incorrect term "cryogenics" is bandied around, as is the mistaken idea that cryopreservation involves freezing: the press is ever haphazard when it comes to accuracy, and it doesn't become much better if you glance at what the wisdom of the crowds produced at social news sites in this case. Ultimately this matter, just as any cryopreservation, boils down to issues of self-determination and responsibility for the self. Sadly this is a topic that many members of our society, and especially those in the media and positions of power, seem to find offensive and undesirable: the idea that people can make decisions for themselves, and that those decisions should be respected. But we live in a world in which there is no choice so personal that it will not be interfered with by regulators and lawmakers, and that seems true whether or not the individual is young enough to be considered by those with power effectively the property of his or her parents. (Which is an entirely different iniquity in and of itself). As adults with a lifetime of experience people have just as much trouble in matters of self-determination at the end of life. Witness the political and legal battles over euthanasia, for example, in which childhood is extended indefinitely and the uncaring minions of the state take on the role of distant and forbidding parents. How free are we, really, when it is declared illegal to decide on matters of our own bodies and our own lives, and those who help will be jailed for the crime of compassionate if they are found out?
A 14-year-old girl who said before dying of cancer that she wanted a chance to live longer has been allowed by the high court to have her body cryogenically frozen in the hope that she can be brought back to life at a later time. The court ruled that the teenager's mother, who supported the girl's wish to be cryogenically preserved, should be the only person allowed to make decisions about the disposal of her body. Her estranged father had initially opposed her wishes. During the last months of her life, the teenager, who had a rare form of cancer, used the internet to investigate cryonics. She sent a letter to the court: "I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I'm only 14 years old and I don't want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years' time. I don't want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish."
The judge wrote: "I was moved by the valiant way in which she was facing her predicament. The scientific theory underlying cryonics is speculative and controversial, and there is considerable debate about its ethical implications. On the other hand, cryopreservation, the preservation of cells and tissues by freezing, is now a well-known process in certain branches of medicine, for example the preservation of sperm and embryos as part of fertility treatment. Cryonics is cryopreservation taken to its extreme." The judge said the girl's family was not well off but that her mother's parents had raised the money. A voluntary UK group of cryonics enthusiasts, who were not medically trained, had offered to help make arrangements. Co-operation of a hospital was required. The hospital trust in the case was willing to help although it stressed it was not endorsing cryonics. "On the contrary, all the professionals feel deep unease about it," the judge said.
The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), which regulates organisations which remove, store and use human tissue, had been consulted but said it had no remit to intervene in such a case. "The HTA would be likely to make representations that activities of the present kind should be brought within the regulatory framework if they showed signs of increasing," the judge said. The HTA said: "We are gathering information about cryopreservation to determine how widespread it is currently, or could become in the future, and any risks it may pose to the individual, or public confidence more broadly. We are in discussion with key stakeholders on the possible need for regulatory oversight." The government may need to intervene in future, the judge said: "It may be that events in this case suggest the need for proper regulation of cryonic preservation in this country if it is to happen in future."
Vital interrogation of the science behind cryogenically freezing humans is being stifled because scientists fear being ostracised and ridiculed, according to a leading researcher in the field. The cryobiologist Ramon Risco said scientists risked damaging their careers and being excluded from scientific societies if they worked on cryonics, the controversial science used last month to freeze the body of a 14-year-old cancer victim. "There is an enormous 'stigma bias' to the conversation about cryonics among scientists. For scientists who would like to discuss it open-mindedly it tends to significantly hurt their career - in fact can potentially even get them kicked out of their scientific societies."
Prof Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, said scientists reliant on grants and looking for tenures might exercise self-censorship. "Many young scientists are afraid to hurt their careers. Talking about the future can be very career-limiting. Being seen to be eccentric in the wrong way is frowned upon." Cryonics enthusiasts argue that the stigma surrounding the area could leave people vulnerable to unscrupulous companies ready to fill the void left by science. Tim Gibson of the non-profit group Cryonics UK, which prepared the 14-year-old's body for transportation to the freezing facility in Michigan, said the group, all of whose staff are volunteers, would welcome regulation. "The danger for us is that as the idea gets more publicity, companies wanting to make a profit could spring up and damage us by [taking advantage of clients]."
Those interested in the area who were hopeful that scientific developments could see the reanimation of humans who had been cryogenically frozen would continue to work under the radar, said Risco. He added that "unconventional concepts" such as in vitro fertilisation, space travel and organ transplantation had all suffered "initial bias". "We don't need to start making a big polemic. We will keep on working on organ cryopreservation, no one will call us crazy and eventually we will end up with a solution for the whole body."
Honestly, these cryonics stories are driving me mad. As someone with terminal cancer (and ignoring the fact that I find the description in your articles of people like myself as "cancer victims" to be teeth-grindingly irritating) I feel everyone is ignoring the fact that a young woman looked into her future and saw the denial of everything she was promised. She was denied boyfriends, university, a job, marriage, children, life... and she was not ready to give up on those promises. She didn't want to die. None of us does. I'm grateful that the judge had the good sense to realise this was not about whether cryonics worked, but her own hopes for the future. Reading some pieces lately it seems that while we'll arrange bungee-jumping days out for the terminally ill, how one disposes of one's own corpse is a step too far in giving the dying what they're asking for.