It’s chilly in the afterlife

A cryptic look at cryopreservation and the possibility of resuscitation after death

Christine Beyleveldt // News Editor
Illustration by Maria Centola

Keegan Macintosh, Vancouver Director of the Cryonics Society of Canada (CSOC), plans to have his body cryopreserved after he dies. Because the goal is to prevent ice formation during preservation, he prefers the term “cryopreservation” to “freezing”, but none of this is to say he assumes he’s going to die anytime soon.

Without any debate in the Legislative Assembly, or consultation from the field of cryonicists – which Macintosh admits is very small – BC’s provincial liberal government passed a law in 1990 stating that a person could not pay to arrange for the preservation of human remains on the expectation of resuscitation. Meaning that although preserving someone isn’t illegal, telling them as a fact that they can be brought back to life one day if they pay to be preserved is.

BC is the only province in Canada, and the only jurisdiction in the world, where preservation on the expectation of resuscitation is illegal. Instead, scientists are looking into life extension. Macintosh is also a former executive director of the Lifespan Society of BC (LSBC), an organization that tackles aging-associated diseases and researches more effective ways of repairing the damage they can cause our bodies. Clearly, there’s a lot on his plate, including his current undertaking.

Macintosh is challenging the law prohibiting cryopreservation on the grounds that it impedes on his right to liberty. He has also signed the first cryonics contract with the LSBC, which will keep him in suspended animation until he can be transferred to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona to undergo cryopreservation.

Legalities aside, cryopreservation is no easy task. The CSOC in other provinces has to start the first stage of the preservation process, and then send the remains to the United States to complete the treatment because they don’t have the proper facilities to complete full cryopreservtion to store and maintain bodies. Christine Gaspar, president of the CSOC, said that she waits on standby to receive an official pronouncement of death and for a funeral home to take possession of a body. Only then can they begin the first stage of preservation.

The goal is to keep blood flowing to the brain to maintain its viability while also introducing low temperatures to slow the rate of damage that starts occurring after death. “Essentially it looks like CPR, but it’s not,” Macintosh remarked on the process. The patient is given blood thinners to prevent clotting when they later undergo surgery and their stomach acid is neutralized.

Since there are no cryopreservation facilities anywhere in Canada, the bodies are shipped in water kept at ice temperature – zero degrees but the water doesn’t actually freeze – to either go to Alcor or the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. When they arrive at the facility in the US, the corpses’ blood is replaced with a cryoprotectant solution, which prevents ice formation, and they are then subsequently cooled using liquid nitrogen, the same substance doctors use to remove warts.

For patients whose bodies have to be shipped to a cryonics lab further away, cryonicists use a dry-ice profusion to preserve them for the longer journey. During this process, the body is cooled to -70°c and the blood is washed out before it’s replaced with a solution impermeable to water, as water would freeze at that temperature, causing damage to the cells. Upon arrival at the facility, the body then undergoes the preservation process.

Gaspar joined the CSOC over 20 years ago but led a career as a nurse working in emergency services. “I don’t believe in an afterlife or a spiritual life,” she said, explaining why she gravitated to the idea of cryopreservation. “I like to live and be here. My nursing career tells me how fragile life is.”

Before cryopreservation, there were other methods of maintaining a body at low temperatures. These included a technique Gaspar and Ben Best, founder of the CSOC, briefly considered but never tested called permafrost burial. Ultimately, they decided against it because the temperatures weren’t consistent.

“I would expect that people who were proponents of permafrost burial… would recognize that it’s really not such a good idea in view of global warming and climate change,” joked Macintosh. Although, it’s not an entirely unfounded fear; nearly a decade ago, Live Science began reporting that the thawing tundra was unearthing bodies infected with smallpox, which was deadly before it was eradicated in the 1970s.

One such example of the remarkable preservation of a frozen body is Juanita, an Inca adolescent girl who was sacrificed roughly 500 years ago. When archaeologists found her corpse in 1995 on top of Llullaillaco, a volcano that borders Chile and Argentina, they were astonished at how remarkably preserved she was, nicknaming her the Ice Maiden. Her black braids fell in her face and her head was slumped forward on her chest. She appeared to be asleep.

“What counts for a good preservation for archaeological purposes is very different than what counts as a good preservation for cryonics purposes, I don’t think anyone was wondering if there was still a person in there because she was frozen without the benefit of any cryoprotectants,” said Macintosh.

Humans have found remarkable ways of preserving their dead for thousands of years, although not until recent times has reanimation been seriously considered. Consider the ancient Egyptians, who scooped the brains out of their dead’s skulls using instruments that were inserted through the nostrils. “You can put a piece of chicken in your freezer and then pull it back out and cook it and eat it,” said Macintosh, “That doesn’t mean that you’d be able to put an organ in the freezer and take it back out and expect you could transplant it.”

Gasper revealed there is a new advancement in preservation that involves the use of aldehyde. Robert McIntyre from 21st Century Medicine won a prize from the Brain Preservation Foundation in 2016 for his remarkable preservation of a rabbit brain soaked in a formula containing the compound. Unfortunately, the process can’t be reversed, which does cryonicists no good if they want to reanimate the subject.

“The people that tend to be on the aldehyde team who really think that this is a great idea are the people that tend to believe that brains will be uploaded,” said Gaspar, “So they don’t mind the fact that that tissue is fixed, whereas people who are more in the tissue camp are people who tend to want to hang on to, you know, our biological tissue.”

She’s not convinced on the mind-uploading front as it would require quantum computing – and there isn’t enough computing power in the world to store all of the data stored in the human brain.

Some cryonicists get into this realm with neuro-cryopreservation – the practice of only preserving heads. According to the Cryonics Institute, this is because information stored in the brain is believed to be the most important. It’s also believed that if and when the technology to restore function to the brain is available, the technology to clone a new body will exist alongside it.

If someone’s heart stops beating and they are pronounced dead but they are resuscitated, did they really die in the first place? “It won’t be that we’re reviving dead people,” said Macintosh, “We will have redefined the definition of death, the same way that we did when we defined CPR and defibrillation and other resuscitation techniques.” There’s no doubt that human remains can be perfectly preserved for centuries. As for reanimation, nobody knows what the future may hold except that death won’t be the final chapter.

 

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