Before people die, they decide among burial, cremation, and/or organ donation. But there is another alternative: cryonics. The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), a body of the United Kingdom Government, defines cryonics as a type of cryopreservation that seeks to safeguard a person’s body until they can be resuscitated with their health fully restored (“Cryopreservation, Cryonics, Cryogenics”).
While the goal of cryonics might seem attainable only in science fiction, there are organizations in the United States that offer advanced cryopreservation services to patients with the hope of pausing their death and safely bringing them back to life with future technology. To name a couple, the Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation—established in 1972—currently has 181 patients and more than 1,300 members (“About”), and the Cryonics Institute—based in Michigan and founded in 1976—has 205 patients and more than 1,700 members as of April 2021 (“Cryonics Institute Newsletter). According to Alcor, cryonics is different from freezing because it uses high concentrations of cryoprotectants that allow biological tissue to be cooled to very low temperatures with minimal ice formation, thus preserving organ structure in excellent condition (“What is Cryonics?”).
The methods used by cryonics organizations are similarly used for embryo cryopreservation (EC). According to Cleveland Clinic, EC is commonly used by in vitro fertilization (IVF) programs, noting that it does not harm the many healthy babies born from cryopreserved embryos and that babies subjected to EC do not have a greater rate of birth defects or health problems than children born from other embryos (“Embryo Cryopreservation”).
Nonetheless, it is the position of the Society for Cryobiology that preserving a body, head or brain after clinical death is mere speculation and hope—not science (“Cryonics”). The HTA states that cryonics is currently scientifically unproven and that resuscitating a cryopreserved body would still need to be repaired from the damage of ice crystals, toxicity of cryoprotectants, lack of oxygen, and other cell-damaging factors (“Things to consider”).
However, the premise of cryonics still holds—the expectation is that future technology will be available to reverse the damage. The Cryonics Institute boasts on its website an open letter with 68 signatures of scientists from institutions such as MIT, Harvard, NASA, and Cambridge University supporting cryonics as a science-based endeavor (“The Case for Cryonics”).
Cryopreservation is available only to legally-dead patients, so it is not available to terminally ill patients. The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) defines legal death as either irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions or irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem (Lewis et al.). Given the body’s frailty under these conditions, cryopreservation should be planned in advance. Alcor recommends that cryonics procedures should begin within the first two minutes after the heart stops (“What is Cryonics?”), and the Cryonics Institute advises that, in an emergency, the patient’s head should be covered in ice until the body can be promptly cryopreserved (“Emergency Situations”). Although cryonics is yet to be proven successful, it is an alternative to burial, cremation, or organ donation. In the worst case, people will remain dead but in the best case, they will live again.
While cryonics offers an intriguing possibility for the future, some scientists still consider it too speculative to be relied upon.
“About.” Alcor, https://www.alcor.org/about/. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“Cryonics.” Society for Cryobiology, November 2018, https://www.societyforcryobiology.org/assets/documents/Position_Statement_Cryonics_Nov_18.pdf. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“Cryonics Institute Newsletter.” Cryonics Institute Magazine, Issue 1, 2021, https://www.cryonics.org/images/uploads/magazines/CI_NEWS-2021-01.pdf. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“Cryopreservation, Cryonics, Cryogenics.” HTA, https://www.hta.gov.uk/guidance-public/cryonics/definitions. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“Embryo Cryopreservation.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/15464-embryo-cryopreservation. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“Emergency Situations.” Cryonics Institute, https://www.cryonics.org/emergency-situations/. Accessed 8 April 2021.
Lewis, Arianne, et al. “It's Time to Revise the Uniform Determination of Death Act.” Annals of Internal Medicine: American College of Physicians, 2020. https://doi.org/10.7326/M19-2731. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“The Case for Cryonics.” Cryonics Institute, https://www.cryonics.org/about-us/the-case-for-cryonics/#Scientists%20Letter. Accessed 8 April 2021.
“What is Cryonics?” Alcor, https://www.alcor.org/what-is-cryonics/. Accessed 8 April 2021.
Last Fact Checked on May 31st, 2021.