Can You Cryogenically Freeze Your Body and Come Back to Life?

When you die, there are a lot of things you
can do with your dead body–bury it, cremate it, have your ashes loaded into fireworks
so you can rain down on people on the 4th of July, but some people will choose to have
their dead bodies, or body parts, frozen until technology of the future has advanced enough
to bring them back to life? Cryonics is rapid freezing and then storing
of a dead person in liquid nitrogen. This is a process called vitrification. I first heard about cryonics in 2002, when
I learned that Baseball Hall of Famer and former Red Sox superstar Ted Williams’s
head had been cryogenically frozen. Cryogenics–which is not the same thing as
cryonics–is a general term that means freezing something to preserve it–and it actually
works well for cells and pieces of tissue. So I couldn’t help but wonder: will Ted
Williams’ frozen head be revived in 200 years and attached to giant robotic spider
legs? Based on what we know about chemistry and
how complicated the human brain is, the answer is–well… let’s just talk about it. If you want to be cryogenically frozen and
can afford it, once you’re legally pronounced dead an emergency response team from the cryonics
facility you’ve chosen is supposed to come collect you as quickly as possible, pack you
in ice, give your dead body oxygen and sometimes inject a chemical like heparin to keep your
blood from clotting. The whole thing comes at a pretty steep cost,
well over $100,000 for your whole body, but a discounted rate for only freezing your head. Once you get to the facility where your dead,
frozen body will be stored, the Freeze Team will start to replace your blood with a cryoprotectant–a
solution designed to keep ice from forming in your cells. Why is ice bad? Look at this cell. It’s full of water. And as that water freezes, it arranges itself
into a structure that takes up more space than the liquid water did, so your cells…
uhh… explode. Exploded cells are not a good thing if you’re
hoping to be revived one day: as you thaw, you’d essentially turn to mush. So to try and prevent that, the Freeze Team
uses that cryoprotectant. Sounds… reasonable-ish in theory, but there
are lots of issues. Let’s start with what we know. Scientists /have/ found ways of cryoprotecting
cells and the structures within them, as well as some tissues–but let’s be clear, these
are cells in a test tube, not cells spread throughout the organs and tissues of what
was once a living human being. There are many cryoprotective agents out there,
including highly toxic formamide, methanol, and dimethyl sulfoxide, but glycerol is probably
the best-known. Glycerol is far less toxic and was used way
back in 1949 to successfully freeze and thaw sperm from birds. That discovery was the basis for developing
in vitro fertilization–or IVF–in humans. When glycerol solution is added to cells in
a test tube, water leaves the cells as glycerol heads into them through the process of osmosis. During freezing, glycerol will form hydrogen
bonds with water, interfering with water molecules interacting with each other. This keeps ice crystals from forming, or at
least keeps the ice crystals that do form much smaller, protecting cell membranes from
being sliced to smithereens. To cryoprotect mammalian cells researchers
often use somewhere between 10 and 20% glycerol solution, yet in the past some cryonics facilities
reported using around a 70% glycerol solution. Since then, these facilities have moved away
from using glycerol and instead use a combination of other cryoprotectants that they consider
less toxic. What will any of these things do to a human
body? We have no idea. Hundreds of frozen bodies–or heads–are hanging
out in chambers of liquid nitrogen, and at this point no one has tried to reanimate any
of them. Removal of cryoprotectants, like glycerol,
and then rehydration of a dead body is a complex and–thus far unstudied–issue with cryonics. And, let’s remember, cryonics is supposed
to keep you preserved for centuries, even millenia, until technology has hopefully progressed
to the point where you can be brought back to life. But…no one has even frozen cells even in
a tube for that long. Even with our best available cryogenic technology,
if you were to take 1 million skin cells, freeze them in liquid nitrogen (properly!),
and then thaw them in a year, hundreds of thousands of them would die within a few days
of being thawed. That’s a best-case scenario, with cells
in a test tube. And that’s because although the structure
of a cryoprotected, frozen cell might look normal, the process of being cryoprotected,
dehydrated, frozen, and then thawed messes with the function of things like proteins
and DNA inside the cell, and that’s unavoidable with our current technologies. To ensure that more cells could survive we
would need to find ways of reducing or blocking that stress. There are many reasons to be skeptical of
cryonics–so why are some people convinced that bringing a person back to life after
being frozen and thawed might be possible? Some of that hope might come from a study
done a few years back. In 2015, researchers: Took 100 worms and put them in a petri dish
with bacteria (what C. elegans eat) and exposed them to this chemical [benzaldehyde], a chemical
with an almond-like odor, for 8 hours. The idea was to teach the worms that benzaldehyde
=food. One day later, they froze half the worms in
15% glycerol at -80 degrees C for two weeks Then, the frozen worms were thawed and put
in a little petri dish racetrack. The never-frozen worms were put in their own
petri dish. Both dishes had benzaldehyde closer to the
“finish line.” And it was off to the races! The idea is that if the frozen and thawed
worms could remember their training, they’d move towards the benzaldehyde just like the
never-frozen worms. And they did. BUT there are some huge differences between
this and cryonics. First, researchers frequently store C. elegans
in liquid nitrogen for long periods of time and then thaw them out for experiments. C. elegans have genes that allow them to produce
different compounds and proteins that protect them from dying during freezing. We don’t. Second, these worms were frozen alive. With cryonics, a person is frozen /after/
they’re pronounced legally dead, and at that point their brain cells are already dying. To make matters worse, the entire cryoprotection
process for a human body, or even just a head, takes a /long/ time, so many more brain cells
will die before a corpse gets to the point where it can be stored in liquid nitrogen
indefinitely. Third: the human brain has billions more neurons
than a C. elegans has in its entire body and is WAY less understood. So it’s like comparing apples and… Sarah Jessica Parker. Finally, all this study did was test whether
worms could associate a smell with food. That’s very different than what cryonics
promises to do: bring YOU back, with all your memories, thoughts, consciousness, personality
and your pesky crippling anxiety… after being… dead… and frozen… and then thawed…
and refilled with someone else’s blood. So, with all of this said, anyone can make
the argument that we have no idea where technology will be at centuries from now. If hanging out suspended in liquid nitrogen,
relying on future humans to hash out all the kinks still sounds like a good idea to you,
by all means, but you could also put those hundreds of thousands of dollars toward, I
dunno, a lot of other things.

24 thoughts on “Can You Cryogenically Freeze Your Body and Come Back to Life?

  1. Did you know that some species of frog can survive freezing? When the wood frog, found in North America, begins to freeze it releases sugar–from its liver–into its bloodstream. That sugar travels to its tissues where it helps keep cells from dehydrating and shrinking. Cool, right? Sadly, we humans don’t have this adaptation and with cryonics we’d be frozen AFTER we’re already dead (these incredible frogs are still alive!). So, no dice.

  2. Interesting story, but I wish I hadn't watched it over breakfast, with our Thanksgiving turkey thawing in the refrigerator….! 🙊

  3. Reanimation will never be possible. There are too many processes that we would have to account for and "jumpstart" from someone who was considered dead.

    It would be interesting to see if they were to ever allow someone to be frozen before they were dead and see if they thawed them a day or 2 later just for the sake of science….

    Long term stasis chambers seem like a much more realistic process if people want to be around for life 100+ years from now. Keeping a human body alive is much easier than making a dead one come back to life.

  4. Would you revive Einstein into today's world if you could?
    And why? To ask him questions not answered in his texts? What could he possibly give to our modern society that other scientists can't?

    The exact same question must be asked about me in 300 years.
    Why should they revive me in 300 years? Because of some 300 year old contract? It's not like I'm going to pop out the fridge and sue the future government. Though, government won't be responsible. So, sue the private companies. Absolutely not likely.

    Plus, who says money will have the same value in the future? Who says there will be money in the future?
    We might as well pay with … I don't know, private data, chores, services towards society etc.

    And also, why freeze in the first place?
    Because of fear of dying? Well, freezing should have the very same "feeling".
    Because of fear of insignificance? Man up.
    Because of curiosity? The world is plentiful enough today. If you get bored now, you'll get bored in the future just as well.

    Finally, society will change. Just like Hannah Arandt states in banality of evil, you don't need evil people to commit horrible and vicious acts. You just need people who follow orders out of fear of consequences.
    Imagine the futures norms and morality will change (which they will), it's like the 50/50 chance they'll burn all the contracts and use the frozen people for – well – anything really. Spare parts, creative-fuzzy-logic-smart-bombs, storage-data-hard-drives, etc.
    Besides, would you want to live in the society 50 years ago? 100 years ago? 300 years ago? Even in short times of peace, it was pretty much nasty back then … anywhen.
    Could "it" only get better in the future? I am molded by the times of my ages. For and by my environment. I would feel alien in any other time. Other people might think they stand beyond the puny feeling of feeling out of place. But these people have never truly felt exiled.
    So, there is no place like home (and time).

  5. I would pay $400,000 to be reanimated in 200 years. That seems a pretty solid investment.

    Because cryonics has more uses than giving hope to the dying, it has implications for space travel, and preservation, its slowly building into an industry all it’s own. It wont be long before before SpaceX or Google buys up some of these smaller companies. We are at the very start of a snowball effect and in the next 30 years we will see cryogenics boom as an industry. I see real hope in the future.

    Even if it dosnt work, its not like you’ll miss the money.

  6. Yep… the leaps and jumps in technology required to make this entire concept work is just so far fetched that you might as well believe in future technology resurrecting people from bones and ashes. Or just something simpler like time travel.

    We're talking about complete logic jumps in biochemistry and whatnot, by which time all these people who got frozen today will probably serve as lab rats to get to a process that really works. xD
    It's in the realm of imagination that one day we can do something like that. But it'll probably require a very complex preprocess we are still far from having, and it'll require the person to still be alive. Some sort of process that just isn't like what we currently see as freezing, or flash freezing, but like some tech that stops all molecular activity in nanoseconds uniformly throughout a given area.

    The major problem in Cryonics that I can see right off the bat is that we're not talking only about thawing these bodies back to previous state… for it to even be ok as an experience, we're talking about securely thawing, resurrecting, rejuvenating, curing of whatever diseases, and potentially reversing irreversible processes – like cell die out, brain degeneration, etc.

    It's like asking you to extract information from a picture that isn't there in the first place. You know, kinda like that CSI enhance thing? By the time those dead bodies went through the entire process and got into their cryo coffins, it's just too late. They already lost too many things required for them to come back to life as they were. What got frozen in time is their dead bodies, not their live ones.

    Centuries from now, these companies who made contracts with these people will be gone (probably long gone), given the cost of preserving these bodies and heads and how little people will care, they'll likely be buried in common graves, but in the off chance some company decides to keep them, it won't be to resurrect them later on… it'll be for experimentation. Or perhaps a museum. Expo: rich idiots from the 21st century.

    There are better chances of us extending our lives indefinitely by storing our entire brain structures as data, far in the future, when we have technology good enough to read and store all that. Taking a snapshot of the brain while you are still alive. Daily backups.

    The worst part is – this sci-fi scenario is more realistic than this entire Cryonics thing. Scanning 3D bodies on an atomic level resolution will be super hard to get at… but you know, we have been making steady progress on it, and it's quite impressive what we can already do.
    Capturing, processing and storing those absurd amounts of data… it might be a function for the currently emerging new technology – quantum computers. Still extremely far fetched, but at least you have some basis there.

    Conceptually though, humanity has far bigger priorities and far bigger obstacles to overcome. I think Cryonics rely on an extremely optimistic utopic scenario that in the future we'll care about such things. Not a great bet. We've been betting in utopic scenarios for quite a while now, they never seen to happen.

    All in all, if I ever end up in a scenario where I have that much money to pay for Cryonics and then keep things up indefinitely… I think I'll just leave it to family, friends or charity. In terms of leaving something better for the future, that's probably the way to go.

  7. I think preserving the connections between neurons is more important than keeping the cells alive. It's possible that the cells could be repaired after dying in the future.

  8. Even if it worked perfectly, such a person would be so out of place that far into the future that extreme loneliness is very much possible.

  9. Kudos on the "Phil" reference 🙂 – Better off Ted – the best TV series EVER that got cancelled after just 2 seasons 🙁

  10. They will never bring you back after frozen, since bacteria evolves with the humans as soon as you get in contact with the future humans you will get sick and die. The same way the British people did with the people on that remote island. They took the people from the island to British and after they brought them back they died

  11. Not that much related, but on a side note, i think it's more possible that science in the next 100 years helps our life expectancy increases to double (~160-170 years old) that our actual amount than to restore dead frozen people. Still, i think it's worth taking a shot if you have the money and still scientifically possible (but remote) if you believe.

  12. Hold on, Are you seriously saying that the crazy scientist from the outer worlds talkin about rapid cellular explosion was telling the truth?!

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