Life after death: All you want to know about cryonics

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Published: January 9, 2017 6:16:43 AM

Life after death has purely been the domain of religion and beliefs, and not just in India; it has been the case across the world.

Enter cryonics. Since the 1960s, scientists have been working on a formulation where they can preserve the body or the mind by using freezing as a mechanism, until such time they can be revived or transferred to artificial intelligence. (Reuters)Enter cryonics. Since the 1960s, scientists have been working on a formulation where they can preserve the body or the mind by using freezing as a mechanism, until such time they can be revived or transferred to artificial intelligence. (Reuters)

Life after death has purely been the domain of religion and beliefs, and not just in India; it has been the case across the world. The Harappan people certainly thought of life after death, as many of the graves found at Indus Valley Civilisation sites have pottery and other items of daily needs buried alongside corpses. Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese … all believed in burying things along with the dead for an easy transition to the other life. Although such beliefs still exist, science has somehow entered the domain of afterlife, working on prospects where people can actually be brought back to life.

Enter cryonics. Since the 1960s, scientists have been working on a formulation where they can preserve the body or the mind by using freezing as a mechanism, until such time they can be revived or transferred to artificial intelligence.

The debate about cryonics has been going on for five decades, mostly on ethical grounds, but a recent judgment from the London High Court renewed interest in the field. A 14-year-old girl, who had died of cancer, won the right to be frozen for resurrection. Although the court was deciding on the issue of wishes after death, inadvertently it also gave sanctity to the idea of cryonic preservation.

What is cryonics?

We have been fascinated with the prospect of living for ages. Though some scientists have been working on time-travel, the prospect of immortality is what got them thinking about cryonics. To that effect, Robert Ettinger in 1962 first wrote about this concept in his book and the movement of cryonics started. In 1967, James Bedford became the first person to be cryogenically preserved after his death in a vat of liquid nitrogen in Arizona. Since then, many organisations have sprung up to support the cause, and thousands have signed up to be cryonically preserved, until someone finds a solution to get them back to life. While the field now attracts thousands, the science and the concept has not changed over the years. There have been advancements in methods, but it all revolves around preserving the body and mind at below freezing temperatures.

How is it done?

Before one delves with the freezing part, cryonics centres around the question of death. Can someone really come back from the dead? Companies dealing with cryonics base their idea on what constitutes as legal death? Say, only when someone is legally declared dead, i.e. the heart stops functioning and all the vital signs go, can they be entered into cryonics.

Preservationists engaged with cryonics believe the process can work as brain activity and cell structure can be maintained after death. Although this is no exact science, but the sooner—in this case minutes—the transition to cryonics, the better the chance a person can be revived.

Although there are some who claim the process can work even after hours, there is no way to determine that. Once someone is declared legally dead, the body is packed in ice and administered with medicines to slow down the metabolism—the damage process. Then the person is put on a machine which circulates the blood in the body, while cooling it down. Once that is done, the blood is replaced with an organ preservation solution. Then starts the process of vitrification—it’s when life extension companies use a semi-solid liquid (there is no exact way to define it) to pump your body with what can be called a cryoprotectant solution to ensure that organs and other cells do not freeze and damage the body further. Although the process in itself is damaging and sometime the brain cannot survive this, it is used widely for embryos, skin, bones and kidneys. By this time, the body has reached a temperature of -124 degrees Celsius. Then it is placed into a container of liquid nitrogen or thermos, where it shares a bunker with other people and a few heads—people who just wanted their head to be cryopreserved, also called neuropreservation.

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Who is doing it?

Four major companies are involved in the process of cryopreservation; three in the US. These are Alcor, Cryonics Institute and American Cryonics Society. The other is KrioRus from Russia. While Cryonics Institute and Alcor have 100-150 cryohumans, their registration runs over a 1,000 with many waiting to be preserved once they legally die.

Who can do it?

As fancy as the process sounds, it doesn’t come cheap. While most have an annual membership fee ranging from $100 to $700, it is the cost of transportation, storage and revival that would make a big dent in your bank account, probably you will have to sell a kidney (one less organ for preservation). The cost of the whole process ranges between $150,000-200,000. But if you are looking at just neuropreservation, the costs halve. There are hidden costs as well. Most companies want you to move closer to the facilities as that gives you the added advantage to be saved and the transition can start within minutes.

What are the risks?

First, the contract. In the 1970s, many companies went bankrupt and people who were preserved at a cost all had to die again. Although most of the big ones today have a backup plan. Alcor, for instance, has a patient care trust. There are a few small ones that run the risk of running out of juice. As you are already dead, even if they don’t find a way, all you risk losing is money. You may not care as much, but your future generations will.

Is it successful?

That is a big question. The whole process hinges on the fact how successful is nanotechnology resuscitation. As most are preserved in a cryostate, we do not know whether the technology to preserve is perfect or if it was too late for the transition. Also, the future hinges on how well-preserved the brain is after vitrification. The silver lining is that nanotechnology is moving fast enough and, in a few years, we may find a way to revive these people.

Take the case of mesentery. It was only in 2016, after decades of using technologies such as MRI and X-ray scanners, that we were able to figure out there is an extra organ in the human body—this proves how little we know of technology. More important, had anyone asked if machines could be smart enough to talk, people would have laughed it off in the 1920s, but today we are living in the age of Watson, Alexa and Siri.

Given that a rabbit brain was perfectly restored after vitrification in 2016, we may not be that far off.

What will you do?

For those preserving only their brains, they can be uploaded to artificial intelligence. If you are revived, this won’t be difficult, because if humans have cracked the bring-back-to-life code, then mind-uploading is an easier task. For those who are coming back whole, it would be a brand new world. Again, most people do this when they are old or terminally-ill, so hopefully measures to reverse ageing or treat that disease would be available once you are alive, and if you want to stay preserved for a few more years, then back you go into the freezer.

Essentially, as long as one has the money, and has no qualms about being in a cryo facility, I do not see why this can’t be a good alternative. The lure of seeing what the future would look like or seeing the world again is certainly too good to pass.

ishaan.gera@expressindia.com

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