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If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’re probably quite familiar with cryonics. This term refers to the freezing of human or animal remains with the intention of revival in the future. The process involves replacing the bodily fluids of the deceased with cryoprotectants, to avoid ice crystal formation, and then storing the body (or sometimes just the head) in extreme cold, with the use of liquid nitrogen.
The concept of cryopreservation is well-established in mainstream science, with human cells and embryos regularly stored at very cold temperatures. Yet preserving large organs – or heads and bodies – is a very different sort of challenge. Even if they could be thawed properly, how would these individuals be brought back to life? Could cryonics one day create a longer lifespan, or is it just pseudoscience?
Despite skepticism from the scientific community, around 200 heads and bodies are currently stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Some of the patients had terminal diseases without present-day cures. The hope, of course, is that one day they can be revived when cures exist. The obvious problem is that the cryonics organization doesn’t know how to bring its patients back to life. Yet cryonics proponents are confident that revival will eventually be possible.
Many experts condemn the idea of cryonics, including medical ethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “This notion of freezing ourselves into the future is pretty science-fiction, and it’s naive,” he told Reuters.
In addition to the lack of scientific data underpinning cryonics (and the unlikely logistics of a company like Alcor lasting long enough to make good on its speculative promises), there are numerous ethical issues, too. Cryonics opponents argue that it changes the concept of death and could lead to the use of premature euthanasia. It is also extremely expensive, creating issues of fairness and access. On the other hand, cryonics advocates believe that it will make the prospect of immortality a reality, which they think will benefit society.
The icy search for immortality:
- In 1967, James Bedford became the first person to be successfully frozen. As of 2014, 250 bodies have been cryopreserved in the United States and 1,500 people have made arrangements for cryopreservation.
- The costs associated with storing and preparing corpses using cryonics ranges from approximately $30,000 to $200,000 (USD).
- In 2016, there were four facilities around the world offering cryonics preservation – three in the United States and one in Russia.
- In France, it is illegal for cryonics to be used as a mode of body disposal.
- The youngest person to be cryopreserved was two-year-old Matheryn Naovaratpong, a Thai girl who tragically succumbed to brain cancer in 2015.