Article first published as Understanding Cryonics – Part 1 – Real Science? Or Science Fiction? on Technorati.

In this, the first in a series of feature articles I will be publishing on the topic of cryonics, we will look at the very basics of the technology and dispel many of the common myths regarding the ‘fantasy’ of cryonic suspension and re-animation.

First, to get rid of the most commonly perceived myth, no, Walt Disney was NOT cryonically suspended.  In fact, his body (including his head – more on the significance of this later) was cremated and his ashes set to rest at the now infamous Forrest Lawn Cemetery in rural Los Angeles; very close to the final resting place of pop icon Michael Jackson.
The most notable person who was cryonically preserved is former baseball legend, Ted Williams. After his death in 2002, his head was surgically removed and preserved using one of the fascinating cryotechnologies called neurosuspension, which we will begin to explore now.

There are two basic types of cryonic suspension: full-body suspension, and suspension of only a subject’s head, commonly referred to as neurosuspension.

The goal of Full-body suspension is typically to revive the subject at a future time, when the affliction which set about their cardiac arrest is cured and it is reasonably deduced that they could regain a seemingly normal life.

The goal of neurosuspension is to preserve only the brain with the hope that once human cloning technology is perfected and commonplace in our society, the subject’s DNA can be used to clone a new body and that the memories, emotions, and personality of the suspended brain can be placed into the healthy clone.

Sound far fetched? Maybe. But, before we jump to conclusions, we should at least take a much closer look at the science and technology behind cryonics so that we can make an informed and educated opinion on the subject, right? After all, the science is very real and the technology to suspend people does exist and is, in fact, in practice all over the world. Are those people signing up to be frozen (or worse, decapitated then frozen)all crazy? Are the doctors and scientists that spend and dedicate their lives to this science nuts too?

In order to properly examine the reality of cryonics and all of the elements that go into a successful suspension, we have to understand the legality of the field and the science that drives it.  Foremost in this discussion, we must understand that it is against the law to cryonically suspend any human before they are legally dead – and yes, there are (at least from strict legal and medical viewpoints) several different types of death. Legal death occurs anytime the heart stops.  This is an important  distinction because there are thousands of people who legally die and are brought back by medical science everyday through the use of defibrillators, bypass machines, pacemakers, and even good old fashioned CPR.
Clinical death, or total death, as it is sometimes referred to, does not occur until all brain function stops. This is the point where most medical professionals agree any attempt at resuscitation is futile since irreparable brain damage is likely to have occurred due to a prolonged lack of oxygen and/or blood circulation. These definitions lay the platform that allows hope for the science of cryonics. The science thrives because it is believed that by properly preserving a human body at or just after the time of legal death, successful reanimation can be achieved, provided no irreversible damage is done to the cells, organs, brain, or nervous system of the subject during suspension.  The preservation process, called vitrification within the industry, is the key to having any hope of successful resuscitation.

Because it is so crucial that no physical damage be done to the subject body during vitrification, the subject is not simply dipped into a vat of liquid hydrogen at the time of death. While this would immediately cease all cellular degeneration and preserve the body without further decay, it would not prevent the water content in the body from forming ice crystals which could expand causing catastrophic and irreparable damage to veins, cells, and organs. Therefore, as part of the vitrification process, shortly after a declaration of legal death, doctors immediately begin removing the water from the subject body and replacing it with a glycerol-based chemical, called a cryoprotectant.  This ‘human anti-freeze’, has proven far more efficient at preserving the intricacies of the human body during suspension then did the earliest methods used.  It is also sadly the reason why the people suspended earliest in the science’s history, are far less likely to ever be successfully revived, and why most scientists and cryobiologists believe any attempts at future revivals will be done on a last in, first out basis; not because a longer period of suspension would be any more detrimental to the revival efforts, but because earlier subjects were not preserved using the methods now known to prevent crystallization during suspension and therefore have much less chance of being revived without fatally catastrophic physical damage being done to the body.

Now that we know what cryonics is, what it hopes to accomplish, and how a subject is prepared, my next article will focus on the process of vitrification and the storage of the subjects. The third article in this series will detail the storage facilities themselves, as well as the future of nanotechnology and how it is expected to revolutionize the prospect of revivals.  The forth and possibly final article in this series, will recap what we know, highlight any other potential future breakthroughs in the science or the technology that drives it, and divulge when the first human revivals might be realistically expected.  I hope you’ll join me for each of them as we explore this fascinating science and what miraculous possibilities successful cryonics could unleash for mankind.