The Science of Cryonics

We’ve all heard the rumors of famous celebrities and world-elite freezing their sick bodies in the hopes of being reanimated in the far future when a cure is found for their illness. This practice, cryonics, relies on sub-zero temperatures to preserve these bodies in a state of suspended animation, but where does the science end, and fiction begin?

The First Frozen Man

The first person to be cryopreserved was Dr. James Bedford in 1967. Bedford was a psychology professor at the University of California with kidney cancer that had begun to affect his lungs. At this point in medical history, there wasn’t even a way to treat his condition. Just hours after he died, doctors from the Life Extension Society froze his body. Most cryonics researchers today believe that Bedford’s preservation was not viable, however, a chemical meant to aid in the preservation process was pumped into Bedford’s body, which physicians now think may have caused permanent damage to the brain, making it impossible to ever restore him.

cryonics transfer

Bedford being transferred to a new tank./CC Alcor Life Extension Foundation

In Bedford’s will, he left the Life Extension Society $100,000 to go towards research, but his wife and son used up more than that amount of money defending Bedford’s will in court. His body has since moved between five different facilities since his preservation, and was even kept by members of his family for a time.

Modern Cryonics

Whole-body cryopreservation continues to be regarded by the mainstream scientific community with skepticism. The big rift between scientific consensus and cryonic faith is the potential for the brain to be preserved long-term without sustaining damage. Surgeons today use cold temperatures to slow down the metabolic rate of the brain, making it tolerate oxygen deprivation for extended periods, but even that practice results in brain damage around the 40-minute mark.

cryonics procedure

Cryonics procedure./CC Alcor Life Extension Foundation

Since Bedford’s preservation, most cryonics advancement has been made in protecting the body from damage during the freezing process. Freezing the body in a way to keep ice crystals from damaging the brain uses cryoprotectants and vitrification. Vitrification allows liquids to freeze while staying in a softer, more fluid state, keeping ice crystals from damaging tissue. Despite these advancements, damage caused by cryopreservation of the human body is irreversible with modern technology and procedures.

The Process

To be cryopreserved in the United States, you first have to be declared legally dead. After that, you have to finance the process of careful freezing. This can cost anywhere from $28,000-$200,000 and is often paid for by life insurance policies, though you can get frozen for a little cheaper in Russia. Once you’re frozen, you are charged maintenance fees. This need for a possibly never-ending supply of money makes cryopreservation impossible for most people, though there has been a trend of just freezing your head to save money and space.

Though the stories of Walt Disney being frozen are, in fact, erroneous—Disney was cremated—Red Sox baseball player Ted Williams is probably the most well-known person to be cryogenically frozen.

ted williams

Tedd Williams was cryonically frozen after death despite wanting to be cremated.

The Future

Many people may be awaiting revival in a far-flung future where tissue regeneration techniques and neurology are far more advanced, but some cryonics patients’ fate may not be so lucky. The Cryonics Society of California—a facility that held Bedford for a time—ran out of funding and lost 9 patients to thawing, a warning that even cryogenic preservation isn’t forever.

cryonics container

A modern cryonic storage container./CC JM Perez