Human Biostasis Options: Advantages and Limitations

On February 9, 2016 the Brain Preservation Foundation announced that the cryobiology company 21st Century Medicine had won their small mammal brain preservation prize. The team at 21st Century Medicine used a procedure named Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation (ASC) to preserve the ultrastructure of the brain in a “near-perfect” condition. It is important to understand how ASC differs from both conventional cryopreservation and other human biostasis alternatives to understand its merits and limitations.

In conventional cryopreservation (which is the procedure Alcor currently uses) the blood (and cell water) in the brain is replaced with a vitrification agent that permits long term storage at liquid nitrogen temperature without further degradation. The advantage of this method is that it seeks to both preserve viability and the fine ultrastructure of the brain. Currently, the disadvantage of this method is that it produces (severe) cerebral and cellular dehydration, which alters the ultrastructure of the brain and renders some components of the brain difficult to observe in electron micrographs.

A radically different alternative to cryopreservation is to chemically fix the brain with aldehydes (formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde) and store the brain at room temperature or in a fridge in the liquid state. While some people consider such a procedure “better than nothing”, Alcor does not support this kind of “chemopreservation” as a long term care option due to concerns about long-term degradation and  sub-optimal preservation in ischemic cases. An extensive critique of liquid state chemopreservation can be found in my article ‘Chemical Brain Preservation and Human Suspended Animation.’

What is notable about the procedure that won the small mammal brain preservation prize is that it combines both aldehyde fixation and vitrification. In short, first the brain is perfused with glutaraldehyde, followed by perfusion of a high concentration of cryoprotectant to protect the brain against ice formation during long term care. This idea is actually not new and was discussed in in the mid-1980s in Eric Drexler’s book Engines of Creation. The renewed popularity
and technological development of this idea was recently triggered by the formation of the Brain Preservation Foundation and its emphasis on ultrastructural preservation. The protocol that won the small mammal brain cryopreservation prize has shown indeed a degree of ultrastructural preservation that has not yet been achieved with conventional brain cryopreservation.

Alcor’s biggest concern with aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation is that it renders the tissue completely dead by contemporary viability criteria by creating irreversible crosslinks between bio-molecules. Despite claims to preserve the “connectome”, at the molecular level structure is fundamentally altered. In terms of research aimed at reversible biopreservation, this is a dead end.

Conventional cryo, conventional chemo, and a combination of the two are the three most discussed options of human biopreservation. Other, hypothetical possibilities include (a) vitrification with agents with much higher glass transition temperatures that permit warmer storage such as at dry ice temperature (b) poly-vitrification, in which high molecular weight polymers are used to stabilize the patient near or at room temperature, and (c) the use of molecular nanobots to induce reversible biostasis (an idea originally proposed by Robert Freitas).

The current position of Alcor is to keep researching and offering conventional cryopreservation without the use of chemical fixatives. The research emphasis of the organization and associated labs this year will be to produce better electron micrographs of cryopreserved brains and the validation of blood brain barrier modifying agents to eliminate the severe dehydration that is currently observed in “good” cryonics cases.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, March-April, 2016