A major obstacle to strengthening the case for cryonics is the perception that meaningful research aimed at resuscitation of cryonics patients cannot be done today. Attempts to be more specific than evoking the need for a technology that can manipulate matter at the molecular level are considered to be vague and unproductive. Clearly, such a stance is an open invitation for skeptics to claim that cryonics advocates have not much more to offer than hope and optimism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is there a lot of relevant empirical research that can be conducted today, a focused investigation into the technical and logistical challenges of resuscitation can also define cryonics research priorities and refine the stabilization and cryopreservation procedures that we use today.
The first thing that needs to be recognized is that if we want to say something specific about the nature and limits of repair we need to be able to characterize the damage in detail. There has been a lot of general discussion of damage but there have been few writers that have systematically characterized the forms of damage that can occur prior to and/or during cryopreservation and then linked those forms of damage to contemporary or envisioned repair strategies. A notable exception is the 1991 article “‘Realistic’ Scenario for Nanotechnological Repair of the Frozen Human Brain” where the individual forms of mechanical and biochemical damage (ice formation, protein denaturation, osmotic damage etc.) are catalogued and repair strategies are discussed in biological terms.
Describing the various forms of damage at such a detailed level provides a meaningful context within which to discuss the technical feasibility of cryonics in rather specific terms, too. If someone would claim that cryonics is hopeless because of the “toxicity” of the vitrification agents we can ask for more specifics about what kind of biochemical damage is being alleged and why such alterations irreversibly erase identity-critical information.
Even when it is admitted that theoretical and empirical investigations into damage associated with (crude) cryonics technologies is possible it surely would be preposterous, wouldn’t it, to claim that repair of the damage itself can be done today. Well, not quite. Granted, we do not have the biological or mechanical cell repair technologies that would be required for repair of the brain at the molecular level but we can simulate a specific kind of damage (ice formation, ischemia) and create three dimensional neural wiring maps that can be compared to controls. Often this is not even necessary because we understand the universal language of biology and, for example, if we observe a ruptured cell membrane wall we know how it is supposed to look.
From here it is a short step to what I would call “reconstructive connectomics,” a sub-discipline of the field of connectomics that studies pathological changes of neural connections in the brain with the aim of in silico repair. Computational limitations currently constrain the scale and complexity at which we can do these reconstructions but it is not necessary to do reconstructive connectomics in a human-sized brain to obtain a much greater understanding of the mechanisms of damage, the type of repair required, and the empirical content of concepts like information-theoretic death.
It is important to point out here that the idea that resuscitation research can start today does not require taking sides in debates about the relative merits and limitations of biological versus mechanical cell repair technologies. The primary objective here is to show that meaningful resuscitation research can be done today and that the absence of such research only provides our critics easy targets.
Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, May, 2013