Corpsicles in The New Yorker

No science today, I’m afraid, but I did want to point anyone who’s behind on their back issues of The New Yorker toward a nice piece on cryonics (on the movement in general and the Cryonics Institute in particular).

I mention this here because while scholars of biogerontology don’t generally study cryonics, the latter subject seems to orbit the former like a dim moon. I tend to get questions about cryonics when I make public appearances to talk about longevity research. That isn’t surprising, since both subjects share a common goal, if not methodology or standards for intellectual rigor. Consequently, my ears tend to prick up whenever I see it mentioned in the mainstream popular literature.

I’m a cryonics skeptic of the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” flavor. As I’ve said before, I suspect that long-term preservation of the potential for life by freezing or other means is physically possible, but at present I don’t think we’re making any significant progress in that direction. Part of the problem is that there’s very little serious initiative within the mainstream of academia or industry to build the many, many necessary precursor technologies. Another part is that the problem is really, really hard – harder than the comparatively simple but still unsolved problem of maintaining cellular viability within tissues at low temperatures. In the New Yorker article, they hit the nail on the head:

“Neuropreservation” has a scientific attitude, but that doesn’t make it science. Credentialled laboratory scientists don’t generally think the dead will one day awaken. The consensus appears to be that when you try to defrost a frozen corpse you get mush. And even if, in the future, scientists could repair the damage done to cells by freezing and thawing, what they would have, at best, is a cadaver.

Got that? In order for cryonics to work, we have to be able to do a lot of hard things:

  1. Preserve cells at ~100% viability.99% just ain’t gonna cut it, especially in tissues like the heart and brain, and we’re barely there even in ideal situations like loose cells in rich media loaded with antifreeze compounds
  2. Cure the disease or other condition that (would have) killed the subject. I’ve never been clear on whether that would happen in the frozen state, or the inanimate and presumably further deteriorating thawed corpse. Both pose formidable technical hurdles.
  3. Bring people back from the dead. Literally resurrect them.

That last step is, as they say, a doozy: Let’s imagine that you’ve got a dead person on the table: their cells are viable, you cured whatever ailed them – but not only are their brain and heart silent, but the metabolism of every cell is at best restarting from an inactive state, and I suspect that your handy defibrillator is not going to do the job. Cryonics advocates tend to elide the distinction between “thawed” and “revived”.

Granted, our definition of “dead” has changed a lot over the past century. Once upon a time, you were dead if your heart stopped – now we routinely bring people in cardiac arrest “back from the dead” in that sense. Now we define death by reference to brain activity, but I suspect even those definitions are already in flux.

Still, I would submit that someone who has died or ended their own life; frozen or otherwise preserved their bodies; been subjected to radical molecular or cellular processing sufficient to reverse a lethal illness, along with any damage incidental to the preservation procedure; and thawed themselves out (either before or after the aforementioned processing), is – by any definition we can imagine at present – really really quite very dead. It behooves any would-be cryonaut to give this issue serious thought in any evaluation of one’s chances for revival.

Lest if I sound closed-minded, allow me to reiterate my ultimate position: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the face of such evidence, I’ll gleefully change my view. In other words, show me the (figurative) money. I’m waiting for someone to take the tools of modern biology and take a few steps in the right direction: The viable freezing, preservation, and thawing of (at first) individual tissues, then organ systems, and (eventually) an intact small mammal. Start with skin! If we can’t do skin, we can’t do a whole body, so we might as well start small (and thin). Skin sounds downright easy.

The field could take a lesson from the dawn of modern biogerontology back in the early 1990s: Acknowledge the mind-bending complexity of the challenge. Create model systems for cryonics, using the best tools from the vast edifice of modern biological knowledge. Break down the problem into feasible steps. And then, by all means, full steam ahead.

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29 comments

  1. Trying to define death, bringing skin back to life, now this is an amusing Friday night.
    But seriously, thanks for another well written article, you might consider submitting a story to the New Yorker yourself, and I am not just saying that. 🙂

  2. In fact a question comes to mind, and that is: are there any competing “life preservation” concepts currently on the market? Other than downloading your mind to a microchip or hard drive or some such…

  3. More importantly, I think you are missing the information theoretic aspects of cryopreservation. The point is not (only) to preserve the physical aspects of the brain, but to thus keep the information contained in it. The damage is not completely arbitrary, it can be modeled, and the most likely pre-damage state reconstructed (eg see expectation maximisation)

    If you were given the position of every protein in the brain, do you claim that at no point in the future will you be able to recreate or emulate said brain?

  4. D.B. has it more nearly correct. Read PROSPECT OF IMMORTALITY by Robert Ettinger and ENGINES OF CREATION by Eric Drexler before making incorrect points about medstable (longterm biostabilization).

  5. The article in THE NEW YORKER was one of the most scientifically illiterate journalistic efforts concerning cryonics that I have seen in quite a while. Compare that with the recent cryonics coverage given in the supposedly less literate DETROIT NEWS:
    http://www.detnews.com/article/20100104/LIFESTYLE03/1040337/

    http://www.detnews.com/article/20100104/LIFESTYLE03/1040344/

    http://apps.detnews.com/apps/multimedia/player/index.php?id=3961

    If you want to comment on the scientific case for or against cryonics, I think that you should familiarize yourself with an article on the subject which has been written for a scientific journal:

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

  6. Ben — If there’s something objectively wrong with the New Yorker report, let’s talk about that. Specific complaints about my points above are also welcomed. Just calling the piece “illiterate” doesn’t move the ball in either direction. Here: I’ll call it superlatively literate and deeply incisive. We’re back at the 50-yard line.

    As for the Detroit News articles, I thank you for the links, but they appear to be short, uncritical profiles of Robert Ettinger and his work, including a few quotes from you. I’s unclear to me how they clash with or otherwise controvert my points above, or any specific claims made in the New Yorker piece.

    Thank you for the link to your review article about cryonics.

    Alejandro – Thank you for the link to the rabbit kidney article. The study falls far short of a demonstration of efficacious preservation and revival, as the authors themselves admit:

    It remains to be determined whether this devitrification is seriously damaging and whether it can be suppressed by improving cryoprotectant distribution to more weakly perfused regions of the kidney or by rewarming at higher rates. In conclusion, although the goal of organ vitrification remains elusive, the prospects for success have never been more promising.

    …but I am happy to see the evidence that there are workers in the field who are decomposing the problem into smaller, manageable pieces and reporting their progress. I wish them the best.

    On the issue of “information theoretic” preservation: I think that’s a long conversation. I suppose that it’s possible that a protein-level map of a brain would be sufficient for reconstruction; it’s also possible that we’d need membrane lipids, ions, and potentials to be mapped as well, or possibly even quantum states.

    Even if that’s true, I foresee a large number of technical hurdles: How does one assemble such a map without destroying the substrate? How does one accomplish the re-assembly or repair (q.v. Maxwell’s demon: if part of the relevant state involves nonequilibrium distributions of molecules, in tens of billions of cells, how does one achieve that in a a reconstruction?). Some of this borders on being impossible based on first principles.

    But even if it’s not impossible, this tends to support my points about the difficulty of the task: if all we have to do is assemble a molecule-by-molecule map of the brain, then this is astonishingly hard, and people shouldn’t be blithe about the difficulty. In fact, we’re essentially in agreement: all we have to do is repair all the damage that caused aging, reverse any subsequent damage due to vitrification, and then return the subject to a living state. That’s all. My point is that we are basically nowhere close to that at this time, and it’s not clear whether significant progress is likely to be made anytime soon.

    Charles: I probably won’t read those books, but if I’ve made specific claims that you feel are inaccurate, please point them out; I welcome the debate. (Those interested in learning more about the nature and extent of Dr. Tandy’s expertise should visit his institute’s website or read this manuscript, which while not specifically about cryonics does include an excellent discussion of time travel.)

  7. I don’t think many people have ever said that the process of recovery from cryonics was going to be anything but incredibly hard. It tends to be considered a good option by the devotees because of the lack of good alternatives. I don’t know why you mention that the progress has to be soon or even in the short term. There is practically no chemistry going on at liquid nitrogen temperature in the body. It can wait for quite a while.

    In any case, I lean towards emulation of the brain, so, no need to repair the damage in my view, and no need to get the information non-destructively. Most of your questions are probably addressed here: http://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/3853/brain-emulation-roadmap-report.pdf

    Btw, I forgot to welcome you back. I’ve been reading this blog for a long time. It had been missed in its dormancy.

  8. Quantum states? You mean those things that have changed since the beginning of this sentence? Yeah, I’m not worried about being THAT precise 😉

    Well anyways, since the trend has already started, here are more links.

    Cryopreservation of rat hippocampal slices by vitrification: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16403489?dopt=Abstract

    The rest of 21st Century Medicine’s Publications: http://www.21cm.com/abstracts.jsp

    Scientists’ Open Letter: http://www.imminst.org/cryonics_letter/

    And… and…. *burp*

    Sorry Chris, but cryonics shouldn’t have to appeal to your arbitrary whim (given that there is no pause button…. people are dying today… *cough*). After all, suppose researchers one-up your call for small animals: they have perfectly reversible suspended animation! For entire humans! Gasp! The problem, though, is that you’ve completely neglected the key idea of cryonics. What about the guy who is lying on the floor with 8 hours of ischemia? If cryonicists found him and started their protocol of “Perfectly Reversible Suspended Animation!” ™ would you stumble in and yell, “Stop! That man is…. is…… dead! Dead I tell you!”

    I mean, what’s the point if all you’re doing is suspending dead people?

    Right?

    😉

    One of the better papers I’ve seen on cryonics was written back in 1987 by mathematician Thomas Donaldson. Even if it doesn’t sway you to become a hardcore cryonicist, it is still a nice meditation on death: http://alcor.org/Library/html/NeuralArcheology.html

    Oh, and lest you decide to pull a Tandy on me, I’ll just be upfront about my background. Here is my Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/enoonsti

    Bring it 🙂

  9. Thanks for providing a forum for iscussion
    of cryonics here on Ouroboros, Chris. I will
    respond to the points you made in your initial posting.

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence seems like a reasonable rule to me, but I don’t think
    that it rules out the feasibility of cryonics — even given the difficulty of presenting extraordinary evidence. There is a lot of good science and technology that can be applied to cryonics, but ultimately cryonics is dependent upon future technology to work. Future scientific
    knowledge is not current scientific knowledge, which could be a way of saying that it isn’t science at all. But a similar argument could be made about cancer research. Can anyone prove that cancer can be cured? Is it science, pseudo-science or an extraordinary claim to believe that cancer can be cured in the absence of evidence? Perhaps billions of dollars should
    not be wasted trying to cure cancer in humans before it can be demonstrated that cancer can be cured in a small mammal. Start with skin!

    Actually, cryopreservation research has done better than skin. A rabbit kidney was vitrified at -130ºC (a solid state, below the glass transition temperature), rewarmed and transplanted into a rabbit which survived for 9 days with the transplanted kidney as the sole functioning kidney of the rabbit:

    http://bit.ly/aUNNn8

    Vitrification of brain tissue has proven to be easier than vitrifying kidneys:

    http://www.21cm.com/pdfs/hippo_published.pdf

    http://bit.ly/2r86cL

    Vitrification is the means by which tissues can be cryopreserved without freezing or freezing damage — no ice formation. The hippocampal vitrification
    paper cited above showed 100% viability of vitrified hippocampal slices that were rewarmed.

    Cryonics practice is based on the supposition that all diseases, not just cancer, will eventually be curable. And that will include the capability of rejuvenating people to a youthful state. That is an extraordinary claim, but it is also an extraordinary claim to say that future medicine will NEVER have that capability — not in 50, 100, or 1000 years or more.

    The usual criterion for “dead” is stoppage of the heart. It is now known that a defibrillator can sometimes restart the heart. The person’s cells were still alive. If the defibrillator does not succeed
    because the person’s heart is too damaged, the brain has the same potential for life. By cooling very rapidly metabolism can be dramatically slowed, thereby dramatically slowing ischemic damage. Cooling to cryogenic temperatures with vitrification of the brain can preserve the anatomical basis of mind for centuries, awaiting future “defibrillators” that will cure all diseases, rejuvenate, and repair damage
    associated with the cryopreservation process.

    The capabilities of future medicine cannot be proven scientifically, but scientific understanding can increase
    the plausibility of claims that (1) essential information/structure of brain/mind can be cryopreserved and (2) future technology can use that information/structure to revive the person to the prime of life or better. A more detailed scientific justification is presented in the paper I cited before:

    http://bit.ly/4q7xKa

  10. I suppose I should say a few words about
    THE NEW YORKER article, as well. For a magazine that characterizes itself with a cartoon figure of a snooty snob (http://www.newyorker.com/), the condescending tone and displays of literary
    verbosity in the art of creative disparagement might seem appropriate.

    The journalist begins by describing the location of the Cryonics Institute in relation to the Clinton Township water and sewage building, and ends by describing it as “a seven-thousand-square-foot building in an industrial park in the heart of America, where some of the sorriest ideas of a godforsaken and alienated modernity reside.”

    In between there is an unending stream of
    disparaging descriptions which it would be
    too exhausting to detail. Unlike the DETROIT
    NEW journalist, the NEW YORKER journalist made no effort to understand — or was not capable of understanding — the technology behind cryonics which I have roughly outlined above. There is no understanding of vitrification or the meaning of “death”. Variants of the words “corpse” and “frozen”
    are peppered throughout the article.

    Near the end of the piece the journalist says CI’s funeral director “opened the body and pumped in eight liters of ethylene glycol” into CI’s 93rd patient, as if for no purpose other than to load a corpse with
    toxic chemical. If she had read the case report with any care she would have seen that 4 liters of 10% ethylene glycol and 4 liters of 30% ethylene glycol were followed
    by 12.5 liters of vitrification mixture.

    Perhaps the article seems objective and intelligent to people unfamiliar with cryonics and the Cryonics Institute, but to me almost every paragraph is laden with ignorant hostility, scientific and otherwise. My comments above give a sampling of what I mean.

  11. To Paul Crowley: I am very impressed by the effort you have made to seriously investigate cryonics. As you have discovered, unlike you, most of the so-called experts haven’t bothered to seriously investigate cryonics and thus are only refuting their own ill-conceived ideas of the subject (usually based on freezing damage and a naive understanding of the meaning of “death”). As you say none of the critics refute what “cryonics advocates actually say” because they don’t know enough about cryonics or what cryonics advocates say, and they trust that they can refute cryonics on the basis of their academic credentials rather than on the basis of any real knowledge. This is usually acceptable to journalists, but it should not be acceptable to scientists.

    As for me writing an anti-cryonics article, I have plenty of criticisms about the state of cryonics and I have my own doubts concerning why it might not work. Although I am not a “true believer,” I would not be devoting my life to this work if I did not think that there is good chance that cryonics can work, and that I can improve the chances that cryonics can work. Nonetheless, it would be a useful exercise for me to write an article about why cryonics might not work. I will give some thought to this project.

  12. @Ben Best: thanks, but I think it really has to be from the people who don’t think it’s a good idea to be what I’m looking for. I plan to blog about this some more.

  13. As a skeptic my self, I think that evidence is very important. The correct answer for the skeptic should not be its impossible since their is no evidence that science and medicine will grind to a halt. In fact, Moore’s law suggests science is exponentially increasing. Project blue brain like the human genome project claims that the entire human brain will be reverse engineered and simulated on a computer within 15 yrs. Like wise, we can not say that cryonics is going to happen. The correct scientific answer is the clinical trials are being conducted as we speak but may take 100 or more yrs for the results.

    This is not very satisfying but it is the only honest way to answer a skeptical analysis of cryonics. This also follows with the cryonicist paradox… that if they had absolute proof (as in a 100% revived human) then no one would need cryonics since we’d already have some advance molecular nanotechnology that can heal all disease and aging.

    However, there is some deductive reasoning that can be applied to further support the idea that cryonics might work. Information theoretic death criteria suggests that our minds are not dependent on the material substrate as much as the information encoded on a physical medium. Neuro medicine points out that almost every molecule in the in the brain is swapped out during normal bio processes when a person is alive so this means that our minds are software and not necessarily the wet bio-hardware that encode this information. That gives more credence to the whole concept of cryonics.

    If the information can be inferred from the over all neural structure or copied and the molecules or cells swapped out with newly cloned cells or reset multipotent stem cells then the damage to each cell is somewhat a non issue since they are being replaced with perfect or near perfect copies as the body does naturally through out life.

    Of course, the technical challenges for such a feat would be enormous but not beyond the scope of physical impossibility. Given indefinite time and the laws of accelerating returns it is certainly feasible if not eventually probable.

  14. An interesting case has arisen in the US, in which a woman’s wish to have her head preserved by Alcor was challenged by her family. A $50,000 annuity (not sure whether that means $50k/year or an annuity that cost $50k to establish) is at stake.

    The story itself raises interesting questions about our ability to specify the disposition of our bodies after our death, but I mention it here because of the excellent discussion on io9. Several of the commenters have raised interesting questions about subjects like:
    – if only our heads are preserved, where will the new bodies come from?
    – why do we believe that future people would revive a preserved person from our era?

    It’s a good thread and worth reading.

  15. 1. New bodies will come from the same place the old ones did, cells. I understand great progress has been made in using 3D printing to create new organs.

    2. Reviving a person is a form of life-saving, or at least rescuing someone from entrapment. I imagine reanimating a person from the past would be a way to increase your reputation. Perhaps doctors will use this as a demonstration of their skill. Another possible motive would be the money; thanks to compound interest, there could be quite a lot of it.

  16. Dr. Wowk once said, in regards to number 2: “Cryonics is not like putting a letter in a bottle and sending it afloat.” There is a chain of constant care involved, much like with coma patients. If that chain is disrupted, the cryonics/coma patient dies. Yet if the chain is NOT disrupted and the needed technology is developed, then apparently you believe that cryonics organizations will say: “You know, we’ve been refilling these dewars with LN2 for so long, but now that we’re able to help these people…… meh, let’s chuck ’em.”

    Of course, at this point, someone inevitably brings up how horrible “TheFuture!tm” is going to be, filled with robots torturing you for millions of years. Ironically, when discussing “TheFuture!tm” in the absence of the word “cryonics,” people talk about GDP, China, and so on and so on. I DO think the future could be horrible, but it should only be addressed by people who don’t rely on fiction like “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” A nice place to start is Global Catastrophic Risks: http://www.amazon.com/Global-Catastrophic-Risks-Nick-Bostrom/dp/0198570503/

    (This is not meant as a bash against books like The Post American World)

    A major – but not the only (obviously) – reason I support cryonics is because of the potential IMMEDIATE societal effects it may have in our discussions of where we go from here. It could restore some rationality in the knee-jerk assessments formulated by extremists, from Luddites to “Irrationally Exuberant Techno-optimists.”

  17. On the $50k annuity, Alcor has relinquished claim to that. Evidently they felt that getting the deceased’s remains down to a decently low temperature is more important than the money.

    Like many cases in the past, external factors have reduced the patient’s chances by a considerable amount. If cryonics were performed in hospitals on a routine basis, the percentage of suboptimal cases would drop significantly.

  18. Yes, ouroboros is right. I think such research can be useful in dealing with ischemia (correct me if I’m wrong on that) and other applications, but I wouldn’t really think of it as a savior in cryonics. Unless you want to set yourself up for an extra helping of sadness 🙂

  19. I think you’ve missed the main point of cryonics. There is such a thing as whole-body preservation in cryonics, but to my knowledge the majority of people choose the head-only option.

    The reason isn’t because these people speculate on getting their frozen head reattached to a new body, but they actually hope that the information patterns in their brains stay intact enough to be reconstructed and emulated on a computer/robot. If you have a reductionist worldview (which is the one and only scientifically sound worldview as of now) then there is no problem with this approach and we could reconstruct and upload a brain into a computer, and that upload would then be you – you’d be dead and wake up in new body and not even notice the difference at first, because all your memories and your personality would be intact, if the information has remained intact enough. You would have switched the medium but it would still be you and you would still feel like yourself.

    There is nothing known in the laws of physics that would prohibit this from working – but that said, I haven’t seen conclusive evidence that our current preservation technology (liquid nitrogen) really preserves the brain well enough for a reconstruction. The question is also “how well is well enough” – do you have to reconstruct a brain down to the molecular level, or does the cellular level suffice? Still, I’d take my chances if there actually was a company that offered me the option of cryonics in my country.

    In conclusion, you’ve missed the main point of cryonics: Most (or at least most reasonable) cryonicists don’t really expect to be reawakened in their old body, many just want their brains uploaded into a new body and afterwards continue their new life in the future. There’s nothing unreasonable about taking that gamble with the grim reaper – even if your chances of survival and reconstruction were as low as 5%, this still beats the 100% chance that you’re dead if you just let your corpse rot or burn instead.

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