Exploring cryonics: could science offer new life after death?

Alcor contract surgeons
When we declare that a person is dead, we are saying more about the limitations of our technology than we are about that person’s inherent condition. So, why give up on that person? They’re still potentially there; their brain is intact. As cryonicists, we are looking towards the future.
Dr Max More
In a feature interview with ScienceOmega.com, Dr Max More, President and CEO of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, discusses the growing credibility of cryonics…

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," wrote polymath Benjamin Franklin in his 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy. Whilst more than 200 years have passed since this statement was penned, its claims remain as true today as they were in the 18th Century. The question is: Will this still be the case two centuries from now?

Most would agree that taxation is here to stay, but certain sections of the scientific community are beginning to question the longevity of death. Even by today’s standards, death is not necessarily definitive. Medical advances have made it possible – given favourable circumstances – for physicians to bring patients, who are clinically dead, back to life. It is not beyond the realms of possibility, therefore, to suggest that as our capabilities grow, so too will the parameters of death.

Even if science does eventually succeed in outsmarting human mortality, you might legitimately ask how this could possibly be of any benefit to you. After all, you’re probably going to die long before the secrets of eternal youth are uncovered. Insurmountable though this problem might initially appear, there is a scientific discipline that could have the answer.

Cryonics is the science of preserving people at temperatures low enough to halt the processes of physical decay. Once subjects are placed into this preservative state – commonly referred to as ‘biostasis’ – they will be stored until medical capabilities have advanced sufficiently to restore them to health.

This may well sound like the stuff of science fiction, and in truth, cryonics has been viewed as somewhat of a fringe science since its inception. However, advances within fields such as regenerative medicine and nanomedicine have caused some experts to acknowledge the field’s growing potential. Last month, for example, three academics from the University of Oxford revealed that, once dead, they will be cryogenically preserved until it becomes possible to bring them back to life.

To learn more about the procedures involved in cryonics and to gauge the long-term feasibility of this ambitious discipline, I spoke to Dr Max More, President and CEO of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. I began by asking Dr More why somebody might opt to be placed into biostasis at the end of their natural life.

'An extension of critical care medicine'

"For the same reason that a person might choose to have open heart surgery or an experimental cancer treatment," he replied. "Essentially, we see cryonics as an extension of critical care medicine. If you were unlucky enough to go into cardiac arrest whilst walking down the street 50 years ago, you would probably have been pronounced dead at the scene. Nowadays, paramedics routinely use defibrillators and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to revive patients who would simply have died in the past.

"Cryonicists recognise that what we call ‘dead’ is somewhat arbitrary; it depends largely on the level of medical technology that is available at a particular point in time," Dr More continued. "When today’s doctors declare a person clinically dead, they are not saying that that person is biologically dead. They are not saying that all of their brain cells have exploded or disappeared. They are simply stating that the person in question has become non-functional in a way that they are unable, or unwilling, to fix."

Cryonics is low-temperature preservation with the long-term aim of restoration. One might say that placing a person into biostasis is akin to hitting the pause button; the subject is suspended in a fixed physical state until a point at which reanimation becomes possible.

'Looking towards the future'

"When we declare that a person is dead, we are saying more about the limitations of our technology than we are about that person’s inherent condition," argued Dr More. "So, why give up on that person? They’re still potentially there; their brain is intact. As cryonicists, we are looking towards the future. We can do things today that weren’t possible 50 years ago. It’s clearly going to be the case that in 50 years’ time, we will be capable of achieving things that are not possible today. In the future, we will be able to fix many things that we cannot fix at present. Hopefully, this will include the ageing process itself."

Alcor operating theatre
The Alcor operating room, ready to receive a patient
Placing a person into biostasis is not a simple matter of ‘freezing’ their remains. In order to mitigate the damage caused by physical decay, Alcor’s specialist cryonicists travel to terminally ill members so that the cryopreservation procedure can begin immediately after that person has been declared clinically dead.

"Biostasis all but eliminates physical decay," explained Dr More. "Once organic matter reaches temperatures below -110°C, it goes through a phase transition whereby it is no longer a liquid. A person in biostasis is completely solid; all biological activity halts. We actually preserve our members at temperatures lower than -110°C because liquid nitrogen is such a convenient storage medium.

Minimising damage caused by decay

"Our main goal is to minimise the damage that can occur in getting to this stage," he continued. "Even though we have dramatically improved our procedures, there is no doubt that additional damage occurs between a person’s death and their being placed into biostasis. In ideal cases, we receive advanced warning that one of our members is nearing clinical death and we have a standby team ready. Within seconds of that person being declared clinically dead – a point that we have to wait for legally – our staff members can begin the preservation procedure. They will initiate the cooling process and remove as much blood and fluid from the body as possible. These substances are replaced with a cryoprotectant: a medical-grade antifreeze, if you like. This guards the cells against damage that can occur during freezing."

Although Alcor members are preserved at extremely low temperatures, the process of placing a person into biostasis is not ‘freezing’ in the technical sense of the word.

"Our aim is to vitrify rather than to freeze," explained Dr More. "As we lower the temperature, the cryoprotectant solution becomes more and more viscous. Essentially, this allows us to form a solid, glass-like block. The standard critique of cryonics is that ice crystals will cause a patient’s cells to explode. I’d like to point out that in reality, this doesn’t actually happen. Even so, our techniques eliminate the possibility of ice-crystal formation altogether."

Medical advances

Established in 1972, Alcor is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of cryonics. Not only does the Foundation place paid-up members into biostasis, but it also funds research concerned with their eventual restoration. Whilst no guarantees can be made in relation to the long-term efficacy of cryonics, Dr More contends that significant progress has been made in this respect.

"Regenerative medicine is one related area that is really beginning to take off," he explained. "When scientists first started to talk about cryonics, most people dismissed it as complete science fiction. Nowadays, scientific papers are being published on a regular basis detailing the advances that are being made within the field of regenerative medicine. For example, researchers have succeeded in creating an embryonic mouse kidney using only stem cells. This is a huge step forward from building an artificial ear with scaffolding and tissue cells.

"It’s now pretty widely accepted that within the next 20 years, scientists will probably succeed in growing complete organs and other body parts," Dr More continued. "Of course, we are also able to clone a number of species. It is quite possible that we could successfully clone a human if it weren’t illegal. An alternative scenario, therefore, might be that instead of regenerating and repairing a member’s body, we could just grow a fresh one."

Another fledgling science with the potential to facilitate the long-term goal of cryonics is that of nanomedicine. Whilst nanomedical capabilities are at a less advanced stage than those of regenerative medicine, Dr More believes that they could one day be utilised in the restoration of cryopreserved human beings.

"On the whole, nanomedicine is a theoretical field at this point in time," he explained. "Even so, nanoscopic devices – essentially robots – could conceivably be used to repair cells and to build new ones from scratch. Again, nanomedicine is still in the design phase, but it isn’t difficult to see how it could have applications for cryonics further down the line."

I went on to ask Dr More whether he thinks that advances such as these are causing people to think more seriously about cryonics. Is this discipline beginning to move beyond the realms of pure science fiction?

Connections with other sciences

"Yes, it is," he answered. "There are still psychological barriers that might prevent a person from making these arrangements. However, I think that more and more people are taking the time to learn about the processes involved, rather than simply dismissing the idea out of hand. If you look deeper into cryonics, you will begin to recognise how it is connected to other sciences. Organ donation, for example, is a current research area that shares several commonalities with cryonics. The initial procedures that we conduct in order to maintain biological viability are much the same as those carried out when preserving a donor organ. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what we are doing is working. Electron microscope studies have demonstrated that when we place a person into biostasis, the connections between their brain cells persist. Given what we know about human memory, this indicates that the person is still potentially there.

"Cryonics is beginning to make sense within the context of medical advances that are taking place across a range of sectors," Dr More continued. "People are putting the pieces together and arriving at their own conclusions. Nobody knows whether or not cryonics will ultimately succeed, but it certainly isn’t crazy. In fact, it looks a whole lot more plausible today than it did in the past."

Of course, restoring a person to physical health – in whatever form that might be – is only part of the challenge for cryonicists. If science does ever succeed in bringing about new life after death, this renewed vitality will have to incorporate certain psychological components. To end our interview, therefore, I asked Dr More about the role that memory will play in the ultimate success of cryonics. If this type of restoration does eventually become possible, how important is it that restored individuals retain an awareness of their former selves? Indeed, would restoration even be worthwhile if this didn’t turn out to be the case?

The role of memory

"Certainly for me, there would be no point in coming back unless there was a large degree of continuity between my former self and my renewed self," replied Dr More. "It wouldn’t have to be perfect, because frankly, I have a terrible memory. I’ve forgotten an awful lot of things from the past, and I continue to forget things on a daily basis. Even so, I don’t feel as though I’ve died and been replaced with a different person. Essentially, I would want there to be a sufficient level of continuity so that I still felt like the old me. It wouldn’t have to be 100 per cent, but it would certainly have to be present. Otherwise, you might as well just take a tissue sample and clone me.

"Continuity of memory is extremely important, and I think that we have very good reason for optimism in this area," he continued. "Short-term memories probably won’t be preserved because we think that they are bioelectric in nature. However, I am only really talking here about the last few minutes before clinical death. Long-term memories, on the other hand, don’t appear to depend on electrical activity in the brain. Instead, they seem to consist of the physical changes that take place between the ways in which different neurons are connected to one another. There is strong evidence to suggest that this is the case. Some people, for example, have undergone low-temperature surgery during which their brain activity has been completely halted. When they wake up, these patients cannot remember immediately before their operations, but they do retain their long-term memories.

"As I said earlier, electron microscope studies show that under good conditions, cryonicists are preserving these neural connections," concluded Dr More. "Even if damage does occur, it is still possible to infer what those connections are supposed to look like. There is potential, therefore, for scientists to reconnect neurons in order to restore damaged memories. Given what we know about memory, we think that if a person were to be restored to health following a period in biostasis, they would be the same individual as they were before. It wouldn’t just be their body; it would be them. Personally, I don’t believe that there are souls floating around inside of us. I think that a person is, essentially, the sum total of their brain activity. It follows, therefore, that if we can preserve the organisation of your brain, you will still be there when we restore you."

If you’d like to find out more about the philosophy and science behind cryonics, check out the Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s website…

All photographs courtesy of Alcor Life Extension Foundation



Cryonicists want to turn death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state, and lately some mainstream neuroscientists have given cryonics a second look while thinking along those lines. Do an internet search for the Brain Preservation Foundation, which has started to raise money for incentive prizes towards the goal of preserving the brain with current techniques to allow for the reversal of the off-state through future progress in biotechnology and applied neuorscience. Michael Shermer, the critic of pseudoscience and editor of Skeptic magazine, serves as one of the foundation's advisers, so he apparently considers its approach scientifically legitimate.

Mark Plus - Mayer, Arizona, United States
Oh Dear, If this is the 'Last Word on Science,' it's the last time I can take Omega seriously. 'Growing Credibility' ? Hardly. 'Certain Sections' [of the Scientific Community] 'beginning to question the longevity of death...' I suppose there may be Voodoo Sections in the community. I could go on, through the could's, untils, aims, hopefullys - but is there really any point?

John Vandore - Oxfordshire, England
From what I understand, this all started with a Michigan Physics professor who started the cryonics institute. They charge very little when you think about it; $28,000, which is easily funded through life insurance. It is almost a no brainer. I mean what have you got to lose. I heard that a heart transplant costs $700,000 and that could kill you while trying to give you a few years. Cryonics can't kill you but could give you 100s of youthful years. But I'd do more research at cryonics.org first.

John - United States
I want to thank James Morgan for this very forthright, factual, and respectful article. The Cryonics "experiment" has over the years had to endure quite a bit of hostility and ridicule:
"The new always carries with it the sense of violation and
sacrilege. What is dead is sacred. What is new, that is
different, is evil, dangerous, or subversive."

Henry Miller
The struggle to be taken seriously and treated with respect is not over, but if the tone of your piece is any indication, substantial progress has been made. So again, thank you James Morgan.

Jeff Davis - San Francisco, California, United States
Back to comment form
Oh Dear, If this is the 'Last Word on Science,' it's the last time I can take Omega seriously. 'Growing Credibility' ? Hardly. 'Certain Sections' [of the Scientific Community] 'beginning to question the longevity of death...' I suppose there may be Voodoo Sections in the community. I could go on, through the could's, untils, aims, hopefullys - but is there really any point?

Commented John Vandore on
Exploring cryonics: could science offer new life after death?

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