Death is inevitable. This fact is a fundamental part of human existence, something most of us have come to accept on one level or another. Science is rapidly advancing to a stage where some very real possibilities are presenting themselves. In the near future it is perfectly conceivable that the average life expectancy of humans is double or even triple what it is now. Even so, to some people the thought of dying is terrifying enough to warrant spending serious money in order to put it off as long as possible.
A new phenomena has emerged from the American elite, namely terminally ill or injured individuals having themselves cryogenically frozen until such time as a cure is invented for their ailments. Naturally, where there is demand, supply will follow. The main company handling cryogenic freezing is a Californian outfit called the Alcor Foundation, who will freeze you in ‘cryostasis’ using liquid nitrogen for a paltry $US120,000. Unfortunately for those wishing to undergo the procedure, you have to move to California, currently the only place on the planet where cryogenic freezing is legal. Applicants are still required to go through a very complex legal process in order to gain entry to the program, and you must become a member of the Alcor Foundation before you can apply.
The million-dollar question, however, is does it work? Well, not yet, according to Alcor. The idea is that because science is moving so fast, in just a few years they should have the technology to re-animate you, and repair all the damage done to your body as a result of being frozen at -220C. The human body is a very intricate and complex organism. Every second of the day blood is being pumped around your body, delivering vital energy and nutrients to your cells. These cells have very limited energy reserves, so when your heart stops and the blood is no longer flowing, they quickly run out of nutrients and begin to succumb to toxic chemical reactions. The key point is that when subjected to extreme cold, these toxic reactions are greatly slowed down. By freezing the cells in liquid nitrogen, Alcor hopes to slow the decaying process down to a point where you can be theoretically be kept in cryostasis forever. Their philosophy is that if a person’s body and brain cells are properly preserved, then that person is potentially alive, no matter how long they might have been clinically ‘dead’.
Cryogenic freezing is already common for bacteria and other living cells, with great success. Unfortunately the body is infinitely more complex than these relatively simple organisms, and so there are some serious drawbacks to the process in human beings. For example, when the temperature passes -100C, water is forced out of the cells and crystallises, piercing the membrane and causing significant damage. As you freeze, there is a very real chance your tissues will tear due to differences in temperature between areas of the body. Alcor acknowledges these damages are unavoidable, and even provides a full list of theoretical dangers of the process on request. They express confidence, however, that the emerging science of nanotechnology will easily be able to repair you before you are brought back to life.
There is still no proof whatsoever that we will ever possess the technology to bring those already frozen back to life. Alcor proudly states that no scientist has ever proved it will be impossible to re-animate them. Using that as it’s basis, along with a healthy dose of optimism, Alcor states that cryostasis is “...the only rational option for anyone who wants to transcend today’s ‘natural’ limitations on human life.”
The possibilities are frightening. The implications of people having massively extended lifespans have not yet been explored in detail - the few studies done all predict nothing but disaster for the planet as a whole. Until those with this obsessive fear of death come to grips with their own mortality, they will continue using their financial weight to steer science towards a confrontation with nature that we can never win.