Cryogenics’ Big Problem, or: How Not to Become a Zombie

I was inserting freshly charged batteries into my wireless keyboard this morning, and naturally my thoughts turned to the current state of cryogenic technologies. How close are we to actually being able to bring the dead back to life?

Cryogenics, or cryopreservation, is the practice of “freezing” the recently deceased with the intention of bringing him or her back to life at some future time, when medical science has advanced sufficiently to deal with what killed them in the first place.

Mention cryogenics to the average person today, of course, and the first image to pop into their head is likely to be that of the corpse formerly known as Walt Disney.

Although he’s inadvertently become the poster boy for the process, truth, in this case at least, is unfortunately less strange than fiction. The surrogate father of Mickey Mouse was cremated in 1966 and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. I say ‘unfortunately’, because there is a certain appeal to the idea that the creator of an animation empire would be in line for reanimation himself.

But he didn’t miss the deadline by much.The first known human cryogenic freezing did occur in January 1967, just a month after Disney’s death. Missing the opportunity may not have been such a bad thing, as it turns out. Early attempts were little more than experiments, and although the body of University of California psychology professorHiram Bedford remains cryopreserved in a “dewar” (basically a really fancy thermos) at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, expectations for his successful resurrection are guarded, at best. The reason is a little thing called crystallization, and even if your dead, it’s nasty.

That, my friends, is the Big Problem. Freezing any material involves changing its state. And in the case of cryogenics, it means changing it back as well. Otherwise, what’s the point? The problem with changing liquid to solid is that tiny crystals are formed, a process which is catastrophic to biological tissue. It’s worth mentioning that a sickening “popping sound” reportedly emanates from the corpse as it descends to preservation temperatures. That can’t be good.

So when you’re dead, you’re dead, right? Not necessarily. A lot has been learned since 1967. Although not, arguably, in the Middle East. Alcor Life Extension Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to solving the Big Problem. And they’re getting close. Maybe. The key, I’ll call it the Big Answer, is “vitrification”, or ice-free preservation. No popping sound. Yay.

Vitrification is achieved through the injection of cryoprotectants (think anti-freeze) prior to cooling. This lowers the freezing temperature and increases the viscosity. Rather than changing state, the syrupy solution becomes an amorphous ice, a “solid liquid”. Now for my favourite term of all: a “glass transition temperature” is reached. [NOTE: My supply of quotation marks for this post has officially been depleted]

There are some Small Problems to be worked out, however. Cryoprotectants like dimethyl sulfoxide are toxic (of course they are), especially in the high concentrations required to bring about the necessary effects. So there needs to be a way to lessen the damage caused by the solution to the damage problem. Enter ice blockers. Adding them to the mix means lessening the concentration of cryoprotectants. The result? Very recently California cryobiological research company Twenty-First Century Medicine successfully froze a rabbit kidney to -135 degrees Celsius using a cryoprotectant/ice blocker vitrification cocktail. And get this: the kidney was rewarmed and transplanted into a rabbit with full functionality and viability restored. The rabbit lived.

Now I get to talk about zombies. A kidney is not a brain. And the Really Big Problem in cryogenics is how to avoid something called Information-Theoretic Death. The brain is such an intricate and delicate organ that it may not be possible to preserve it without damage at the finest level. I’m no cryogenicist. Partially because I’m not sure if that word even exists, but mostly because I’m just not. But to me, a re-animated corpse without a mind, let alone memories and a fully functioning consciousness, is pretty much a zombie. Not good. Cool, arguably, but definitely not good.

So, dying is still serious business. My advice is to continue avoiding it where possible. Although the research is promising, we’re still some time away from installation of the elusive “snooze” button [quotation marks borrowed from a future post].


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3 thoughts on “Cryogenics’ Big Problem, or: How Not to Become a Zombie

  1. Fantastic first blog! Incredibly interesting, informing, great links, great photos and excellent spelling. I’m fortunate to get to hear your rants and raves… your… “that’s interesting… have you heard… what if… ” thoughts daily. And, I’m glad you’ve decided to share them with others as welI. Can’t wait to see what you write next!

  2. prairiesky says:

    I like it! humourous- while interesting too…worth reading. Thanks for sharing!

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