Eleventh Hour: They Only Freeze the Heads!

By Eric Wolff | November 14, 2008 1:45 pm

frozen head 2Really! Most of us are familiar with the idea of cryogenically freezing recently dead people, right? Companies freeze the corpse shortly after death to very low temperatures, in the hopes of preserving the person until such time as scientists can reverse whatever it was that killed them. At the minimum we know that Ted Williams is chilling out somewhere in California at 77 Kelvin, waiting for science to come up with a way to give him a new body (Walt Disney, by the way, was cremated). But thanks to last night’s episode of The Eleventh Hour, I’ve now learned that some people choose to only have their heads frozen and not the rest of them. It sounds like that scene from Young Frankenstein, right?

A little research reveals that it’s basic economics: Head-only freezing can cost as little as $80,000, far better than the $150,000 whole-body freezing costs, based on the pricing at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a real life cold-storage non-profit. The theory behind cryonics is simple: The brain is the storage unit of everything that defines us: personality, memories, habits, etc. If the brain can be frozen without damage, then the person contained by the brain can live indefinitely until science is ready for them.

Alcor and its brethren companies have actually solved most of the problems on the freezing end. Ideally technicians get the body immediately after medical death is declared, typically, they say, after the heart has stopped beating, but before true brain death. Consider this the “Mostly Dead” phase. They rush the body to an ice bath, and then they keep blood flowing with a heart-lung resuscitator. They inject the body with various medications, plus ethylene glycol (the key ingredient in anti-freeze) to raise the freezing temperature of water and prevent ice crystals from forming between cells (As Dr. Hood discusses in the episode). Then they lop off the head, send the body for cremation or organ donation, and dunk the head into liquid nitrogen, which, at 77 K, keeps everything nice and frozen until…well, until it’s ready for warming. Alcor thinks they’re so good at this now that the company pretty much claims the preserved tissue will last forever.

The trouble with neurocryopreservation (as the brain only version is called) is that you also have to wait for science to make a body, whether by cloning or some form of uploading to an electronic brain. Even then, Alcor warns, there may be some physical rehabilitation as the brain learns the nerve pathways of the new body. Of course, if you’ve gotten that far, you’re already ahead of the game (heh heh).

But there’s another really big problem with cryonics in general: thawing. Alcor scientists simply have no idea how to do it safely. No clue. It’s just another one of those problems left to The Future, but they have spent some time trying to work out the probability that this whole process will work:

At the end, then, what is the combined probability of success? If all my best case figures are used, P(now) from the Warren Equation is 0.15, or a bit better than one chance in seven. This is my most optimistic scenario. The pessimistic scenario puts P at 0.0023, or less than one chance in 400.

All of which does raise some questions for the great colony ships of SciFi yore. So many plots rely on some sort of suspension of animation to keep people alive and young for their multi-century travels across space. Freezing them, for reanimation later, doesn’t seem the best plan.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology

Comments (18)

  1. It is correct to say that the technology to revive
    cryopreserved patients has yet to be developed, but
    that is not the same as having “no clue” about the
    technology required. There are many “clues”, about
    what future technologies may be able to do, which
    is why many cryonicists ascribe a very positive
    probability to revival.

    Future revival will be contingent upon technology
    that can cure all diseases, rejuvenate people to
    a youthful condition and repair injuries caused by
    the cryopreservation process. Diseases are not
    magic, they are mechanical damage caused by
    damaging agents of various kinds. If damage due
    to disease and aging can be repaired on the molecular
    level, then damage due to cryoprotectant toxicity
    and even freezing could potentially be repaired.
    Stem cells very probably will be useful in
    replacement of organs and tissues that cannot
    be repaired on the macromolecular level.

    A detailed explanation of the science
    behind cryonics procedures can be found at:

    http://www.cryonics.org/reports/Scientific_Justification.pdf

    You cite a paper which calculates the probability
    of cryonics working as being no better than 15%. But in
    the appendix of that paper another scientist calculates
    the probability of success to be between 13 and 77% —
    probabilities more in line with the estimates of
    most cryonicists.

    The Cryonics Institute offers whole body cryopreservation
    (including vitrification perfusion to prevent ice formation
    in the brain) for as little as $28,000. As a matter of
    policy, CI does not offer a neurocryopreservation service,
    unlike Alcor.

    Anyone interested in more than the superficial, dismissive
    coverage of cryonics that you present should read the
    Wikipedia entry on cryonics, or Google “cryonics faq”
    to get answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions
    on the subject.

  2. Frank Glover

    “All of which does raise some questions for the great colony ships of SciFi yore. So many plots rely on some sort of suspension of animation to keep people alive and young for their multi-century travels across space. Freezing them, for reanimation later, doesn’t seem the best plan.”

    Of course, you clearly wouldn’t attempt such a voyage until the technology to revive the crew (and done totally automated, at that), probably using suspension techniques even better than today’s, also existed and was well demonstrated…

    And indeed, I might expect that ability and the capacity for limited interstellar travel, to occur at roughly the same time.

  3. Adam Selene

    What are your chances of survival if you are buried in the ground to rot, or are burned to ash? I don’t know about you, but I’d choose a 1 in 400 chance over a zero chance any day.

  4. Ethylene glycol will fry his future kidneys to bits. Will need a couple of kidneys as spare parts, too. Severed heads cannot be re-wired to a cloned body. Also, who said we can clone a body? LOL The chances of success is zero but there is a chance that at thawing the brain will fell pain from the severed neck’s free nerve endings and the scientists will be haunted forever at the eyes looking helplessly at them for 5 seconds before dying off, again.

  5. John

    Does anyone else think of the cartoon “Futurama”? All the re-animated heads in jars?

  6. this Practice is unethical to the point where the scientists should be put on trial. Its sickening.

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  10. Kalifer Deil

    I will have my head frozen when my time comes. I’m an engineer and science fiction author. “Flight of the Soul”, a play by yours truly, addresses most of the issues regarding life after death. It is available free in e-book form from Smashwords.com. Within 50 to 75 years we will be able to take a frozen brain and download it to a future super computer. It is not as difficult as one might think, probably a lot easier than the research and technology necessary to go to Mars.
    At first a downloaded person will be a virtual person living in a virtual world but with contact with the external world. A little later an android body will be available but it will still be connected by radio to a super computer. Eventually a computer with sufficient power will fit in an android body. In less that ten years we will have computers capable of emulating the human brain so it may be that an android body and brain will be waiting for the first mind download. It will be an interesting time since there will be no cap on how far one’s intelligence can be expanded. It will be limited only by resources (money) and the current state of the art. But lookout for people like Yassmin (9. above) or those more extreme. They will not take this revolution lightly. Here we will have a true eternal life, not a vague promise that religion offers to a select few.

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