19. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Death, Neuroscience

On October 11, 2013, the Wall Street Journal featured a cover story about the unintended consequences of Norway’s long-time insistence on “plastic graves” (“Grave Problem: Nothing is Rotting in the State of Norway”). You see, after World War II the Norwegians wrapped the dead in plastic prior to burial and now they are faced with…corpses that are not decomposing. Since cemetery real estate is scarce in Norway this creates a rather complicated and sensitive problem. One of the solutions is to poke holes in the ground and plastic to inject a lime-based solution to accelerate decomposition.

Not many people would expect the brains of these plastic-preserved Norwegian corpses to be in pristine condition at the ultrastructural level but this strange story does illustrate that decomposition is a process that is highly sensitive to variables like the presence of oxygen, water, microorganisms, and temperature. Of course, some of these variables are related. When temperatures are lower there will be reduced microbial activity. As a consequence, at cold temperatures the rate of decomposition can be even slower than what one would predict based on the decrease of the brain’s metabolism alone. Cold ischemia is not just warm ischemia slowed down (and vice versa).

My company, Advanced Neural Biosciences, Inc., is currently collaborating with Alcor to produce a series of electron micrographs of brain tissue exposed to very long times of cold ischemia (0 degrees Celsius). One of the reasons we are doing this project is to bring actual data to the decision making process concerning the question when to accept and when no longer to accept a patient who has been stored at low temperatures prior to contacting Alcor for cryonics arrangements.

Ultimately, what we are looking for is an ultrastructural signature of “information-theoretic death.” This presents a formidable problem because information-theoretic death is not an unambiguous identifiable property of an image but concerns our best guestimate about how much structure a future technology might still be able to infer from a given state of damage. For existing patients and members who want to be preserved under any conditions this is not a directly relevant question (the future will tell). But when you have to make a decision whether to accept a third-party “post-mortem” patient, arbitrary decisions have to be made because Alcor simply cannot accept every case brought to its attention.

We have now produced electron micrographs of up to 1 month of cold ischemia. When we shared these 1 month images with the Alcor Research and Development committee one member remarked that he “would not have guessed that so much structure could remain after one month.” When we presented an image from this series at a recent conference, attendees were also surprised about this level of preservation.

Of course, this is not the end of the story because a patient with such a long period of cold ischemia will still need to be cooled to cryogenic temperatures for long-term care and a “straight freeze” on top of such extensive ischemic damage could tip the balance towards informationtheoretic death. These results raise one interesting possibility, however. If the damage of a straight freeze is a lot worse than the damage from moderate times of cold ischemia, cryoprotecting the brain (or both hemispheres separately) by soaking it in cryoprotectant could be a superior protocol for a select number of Alcor cases. There is still much to be learned.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, November, 2013

26. November 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience, Science, Society

[This interview was originally published in Cryonics magazine September 2013]

By Stephen Cave

This magazine generously reviewed my book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization in the November/December 2012 edition. But the reviewer argued that I didn’t properly understand cryonics — so I decided to speak to a leading expert. This interview, with Cryonics Magazine’s editor Aschwin de Wolf, is the result. Parts of the interview appeared originally in Aeon Magazine (http://www.aeonmagazine.com)

What is cryonics?

(Stephen Cave) Cryonics is sometimes described as “medical time travel” – is that how you see it?

(Aschwin de Wolf) Yes, that is a good characterization. What sets cryonics apart from other medical procedures is not uncertainty (which is an element of many experimental medical treatments) but the temporal separation of stabilization and treatment. Cryonics reflects the recognition that a disease considered terminal today might be treatable in the future.

Does/will cryonics work?

What is the largest (or most complex) organism (or tissue) that has been successfully cryopreserved and revived (or reversibly vitrified)?

A rabbit kidney has been vitrified and successfully transplanted with long-term survival. Another major achievement that supports the practice of cryonics is the successful vitrification and functional recovery of rat hippocampal brain slices.

In terms of whole organisms, tardigrades and certain insect larvae have been successfully recovered after cryopreservation at low sub-zero temperatures.

What breakthroughs in cryopreservation are still required? When do you think they might come?

Recovery of organized electrical activity in the whole brain (EEG) after vitrification and rewarming would provide further support for the practice of cryonics. This may be achieved in about 5 to 10 years. Long term, the aim should be true suspended animation of a mammal.

It is important to recognize, however, that the damage associated with today’s cryonics procedures only excludes meaningful future resuscitation if the original state of the brain cannot be inferred. Damage-free cryopreservation would be sufficient but it is not necessary to justify practicing cryonics today.

Cryonics depends upon faith in technological progress and social stability (such that well-disposed scientists and physicians in the future will be both able and inclined to revive cryonics patients). Why do you believe the future will be so utopian?

In my opinion, it is more reasonable to ask why anyone would make decisions on the premise that medical progress would come to a screeching halt. Cryonics patients have time, and successful resuscitation does not necessarily require fast or accelerated progress. Cryonics does not rest on an utopian, but on a very conservative, premise.

Resuscitation of cryonics patients is the foremost responsibility of a cryonics organization. That is why organizations like Alcor set aside substantial amounts of money in a separate trust to allow for the maintenance and eventual resuscitation of the patient.

Social acceptance

Why do you think cryonics is not more popular?

It would be tempting to say that cryonics is not more popular because most people do not think it will work. The problem with this explanation is that hundreds of millions of people believe in all kinds of things for which there is no strong empirical evidence at all, such as astrology. In addition, when faced with a terminal prognosis people have a really low threshold for believing in the most implausible treatments.  If the popularity of cryonics would be a function of its scientific and technical feasibility, we should have seen major increases in support when new technologies, such as vitrification, were introduced.

The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that people fear social alienation and solitary resuscitation in an unknown future. In fact, writers such as Arthur C. Clark, who strongly believed that cryonics will work, personally admitted as much. This is a real challenge for cryonics organizations but there is a growing interest in topics such as reintegration of cryonics patients.

Do you think there might be a tipping point in its popularity? What might bring such a tipping point about?

Scientific and technological breakthroughs in cryobiology (suspended animation) and cell repair will certainly help, but if fear of the future holds most people back there may not be such a tipping point. It is possible, however, that in certain demographical groups making cryonics arrangements will be recognized as the normal, rational, thing to do. Something like is already happening in subcultures that are interested in human enhancement or reducing bias in decision making.

Do you think there will be a day when cryonics is the normal procedure for treating those with diseases incurable by contemporary medicine?

Yes, or at least some kind of long term stabilization procedure will be used for people that cannot be treated by contemporary medicine. I find it hard to imagine that people will persist in burying or burning a person just because there is no treatment today. That is just irrational and reckless.

Philosophy and legal status of cryonics

Are those who are currently cryopreserved, in your view, actually dead?

No. But I do not think we can just claim that they are alive in the conventional sense of the word either, although that may change if we can demonstrate that cryopreservation can preserve viability of the brain.

If not, what state do you consider them to be in?

If the original state of the brain, what some scientists call the “connectome,” can be inferred and restored, cryonics patients are not dead in a more rigorous sense of the word. Their identities are still with us in an information-theoretical sense.

What legal status do you think those who are cryopreserved should have?

They should have much stronger legal status than the deceased have today. While a meaningful philosophical/technical distinction could be made between conventional patients and cryonics patients I think we need to err on the side of caution and give them the same kind of protection as other patients with terminal diseases.

At the very least, obstacles to conducting good human cryopreservation in hospitals should be eliminated because a lot of reservations people have about cryonics are not intrinsic features of the procedure but the results of cryonics organizations being forced to practice cryonics as a form of emergency medicine.

When should it be legal for someone to have themselves cryopreserved (eg, any time? when diagnosed with a terminal illness? or only when brain-dead according to current definitions? etc)

If a patient has been diagnosed as “terminal,” that is basically an admission of the physician that (s)he has exhausted contemporary medical treatment options. At that point it is prudent to identify other means of saving the patient’s life, including stabilizing them at lower temperatures for future treatment. This is particularly important if the patient is in a condition where continued metabolism will progressively destroy the brain. Such a procedure would be the opposite of assisted suicide because its aim would be to preserve life, not to end it.

Ethical considerations

The overpopulation problem: if a few generations of people do all have themselves cryopreserved, then when technology permits them to be revived and healed, will there not be an enormous population boom? How will this be managed?

There are several responses to this question. The most obvious one is to draw attention to the fact that today’s socio-economic debates in the West are about the consequences of a decline in population in the future as a consequence of people having fewer children.

It is also important to recognize that cryonics does not operate in a sociological, psychological, and technological vacuum. If support for the procedure changes so will our views on reproduction and sustainability.

Of course, it should not even be assumed that future generations will be confined to one planet (Earth). 

What do you say to the idea that death gives meaning or shape to life?

Cryonics is not a permanent cure for death. There may always be catastrophic events that could irreversibly kill a person or whole populations. In fact, it may never be possible to know that we will not die for the simple fact that this would require absolute knowledge about the infinite future.

Having said this, no, I do not think that death gives meaning to life. That is just an admission that the things that matter do not have intrinsic value but are experienced with mortality as a framework. Neither introspection nor observation of ordinary life suggests this.

In fact, I suspect that short human life-spans have an adverse effect on morality because it fosters instant gratification and indifference about long-term reputation and/or consequences.

On the other hand, do you think we are morally obliged to practice cryonics (as we might be to try to prolong life in other ways)?

My qualified answer is “yes.” If we believe that the aim of medicine is to preserve life and reduce suffering, cryonics is a logical extension of this thinking. Cryonics is not only a rational response to the recognition that science and technologies can evolve, but it also can be important to stabilize devastating cases of acute brain trauma.


When did you first become interested in life-extension technology?

In my case, my interest in life extension was a consequence of making cryonics arrangements.

When did you first hear about cryonics? When did you sign up for it?

I first read about cryonics on the internet in the mid-1990s. The idea seemed quite reasonable to me but I did not consider it as something that had direct personal relevance to me at the time. This changed in 2002 when a rather trivial medical condition prompted me to think more seriously about my remaining life and mortality. I read a lot of cryonics literature in a short period of time, attended the Alcor conference that autumn, and finalized making cryonics arrangements in January 2003.

Do you proselytize among friends and acquaintances? Have you had much luck in persuading others to sign up for cryonics?

Unless I know that a person has a strong interest in making cryonics arrangements, I generally do not explicitly try to persuade them. This is partly because I do not want people to get defensive in response to the idea. In cases where I know that the person is very open to cryonics, I put more effort into it. I think I have been successful in persuading around 4 people to make cryonics arrangements. There may be more that I am unaware of because of all the writing that I do.

Are you pursuing life-extension practices in the hope that you won’t need to be cryopreserved?

Yes. As most people with cryonics arrangements, I have a strong interest in life extension and rejuvenation research. I am not very optimistic about short-term breakthroughs so I try to eat healthy, exercise, and avoid dangerous activities and excessive stress.

What is your educational background?

I graduated in political science at the University of Amsterdam and have a strong interest in economics and philosophy as well. Over time my academic interests have mostly shifted to biology and neuroscience – also because of the experimental research that I am involved in.

What is your involvement with Alcor or other cryonics institutes/firms?

I have been an Alcor member for 10 years and have been employed in cryonics either as an employee or on a contract basis since 2004. My main activities right now are to conduct neural cryobiology research in my lab at Advanced Neural Biosciences and to edit Alcor’s monthly magazine, Cryonics.

I have always had a good relationship with the other major cryonics organization, the Cryonics Institute, too. In fact, without its support, and its individual members’ support, our research would not have been possible.

What would be your best guess for the year when you will be revived by the scientists of the future? What might the world look like then?

I do not think that there is a uniform year for all cryonics patients. Much will depend on the condition of the patient and prevailing technologies and capabilities at the time. For a typical patient, I doubt we are going to see meaningful resuscitation attempts before 2075.

If the past is any guidance, the (far) future will be a combination of things that have always been with us and things we cannot even imagine right now. I suspect that the most characteristic change in the future will be a seamless integration of human technology and biology and greater control over the aging process. 

22. November 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Science

Can a case for cryonics be made on skeptical grounds? If we’d have to believe self-identified skeptics this is not only unlikely but cryonics, in fact, is a “logical” target for skeptical scrutiny. The most obvious approach for a skeptic is to demand “proof ” for cryonics. Upon closer inspection, this apparently reasonable demand is rather odd. Let’s start with a non-controversial definition of cryonics: cryonics is a form of critical care medicine that stabilizes critically ill patients at ultra-low temperatures to allow the patient to benefit from future advances in medicine. Now, what could this demand for “proof ” consist of? Does the cryonics advocate need to provide proof that future developments in medicine will indeed be capable of treating the patient? How could such a proof be even remotely possible? The most scientifically responsible answer would be to say “I don’t know.” And this answer reveals something important about cryonics. The decision to make cryonics arrangements is a form of decision making under uncertainty. Asking for “proof ” for such a decision makes little sense.

“Now wait a second,” someone might add. “It is correct that we do not have absolute knowledge about the future but, surely, science must have some kind of bearing on the question of whether it is rational to make cryonics arrangements?” This much can be admitted. And if we actually look at the science (or the history of medicine) that is relevant to make informed decisions about cryonics we find a number of encouraging observations. Medicine is increasingly recognizing the rather arbitrary nature of death. From the first clumsy attempts to restore circulation and breathing in patients with sudden circulatory arrest to today’s sophisticated protocols that employ aggressive CPR, hypothermia, and emergency cardiopulmonary bypass, our ability to resuscitate people from states in which they would have been previously been considered “dead” is moving towards ever-longer periods of circulatory arrest. In fact, in some advanced medical procedures, hypothermic circulatory arrest is deliberately induced. Such developments are backed up by histological research where it has been established that the neuroanatomical basis of identity does not just implode within 5 minutes of circulatory arrest. Observation of nature also supports the view that cessation of metabolism does not equal death.

“Well, I will admit that science and technology are constantly challenging our beliefs about death but the cryopreservation process itself causes irreparable injury to the patient,” is a common rejoinder to this argument. But this puts our skeptical friend in a rather incoherent position. Having first recognized that we cannot have absolute knowledge about the future capabilities of science, (s)he does not feel the slightest contradiction in claiming that certain kinds of damage cannot be repaired by any future medical technology.

Contemporary cryobiology now informs us that if cooling rates are not too rapid, ice formation does not explode cells from the inside, that ice-free cryopreservation (vitrification) is possible, and that mammalian brain slices can be vitrified and rewarmed with good ultrastructural preservation and viability. The situation is even better than what we might hope for because even if the damage associated with cryopreservation was substantial, it might still be possible to infer the original state from the damaged state. As we are increasingly recognizing in such diverse fields such as forensic science and paleogenetics, it is actually very, very hard to destroy information to such a degree that nothing meaningful can be inferred from what is left.

Then why has cryonics traditionally gotten such a poor reception by people who see themselves as “skeptics?” I suspect that some of it has to do with the fact that cryonics is traditionally associated with (religious) concepts such as immortality, very optimistic projections about the accelerating growth of science and technology, the technical feasibility of specific repair technologies (such as molecular nanotechnology), or mind uploading. But none of these ideas is an intrinsic part of the idea of cryonics. In its most basic form cryonics is just the recognition that what might be beyond the scope of contemporary medicine may be treatable in the future. No specific timeframe or technology is implied, or necessary. There are a lot of things that people in liquid nitrogen don’t have, but one thing they do have is time.

Contemporary science can weaken or strengthen the case for cryonics but it cannot tell with absolute certainty what our medical capabilities in the remote future will be. Saying that some kind of damage cannot be repaired by any future science is not an exercise of critical thinking but ultimately an appeal to authority. How many times do we have to revise our views about death and forecasting before we recognize that we are playing a fool’s game and that the proper, skeptical, approach is to refrain from dogmatic statements and naïve inductivism about such matters? The idea that, right here, right now, in 2013, we are at a time where we can make absolute certain claims about the future capabilities of science and technologies is preposterous. In absence of such knowledge we’d better refrain from doing harm and allow for the possibility that time will be on the side of cryonics patients.


A “Skeptic” on Cryonics: A Brief Case Study

Self-identified “skeptic” Dr. Michael Shermer wrote a column called “Nano Nonsense and Cryonics” (Scientific American, Sept. 2001) that includes a sensationalist description of cryonics with a number of factual errors:

“Cryonicists believe that people can be frozen immediately after death and reanimated later when the cure for what ailed them is found. To see the flaw in this system, thaw out a can of frozen strawberries. During freezing, the water within each cell expands, crystallizes, and ruptures the cell membranes. When defrosted, all the intracellular goo oozes out, turning your strawberries into runny mush. This is your brain on cryonics.”

Since the early days of cryonics, standard procedure has been to circulate a cryoprotectant through the circulatory system of the patient to reduce ice formation. In fact, when Shermer wrote his column the Alcor Life Extension Foundation had not only published a study that showed good histological preservation of the brain with a high concentration glycerol solution but had also introduced the newer technology of vitrification to eliminate ice formation completely. Shermer’s description of the effects of ice formation on cells is factually incorrect too, as anyone who would just casually study modern cryobiology could have discovered. Finally, one does not need to have a detailed understanding of cryonics protocols to realize that the fate of a thawed frozen brain has little to do with the resuscitation scenarios envisioned for molecular repair of the cryopreserved brain.

One can only speculate why Shermer did not inform himself about some basic facts about cryonics and cryobiology. One explanation is that there is no “cost” to being wrong about cryonics. If Shermer would make such careless statements about physics or chemistry his reputation would be much more likely to take a blow because there are numerous people who would identify these errors.

Shermer also ridicules the immortalist and transhumanist activists associated with cryonics:

“I want to believe the cryonicists. Really I do. I gave up on religion in college, but I often slip back into my former evangelical fervor, now directed toward the wonders of science and nature. But this is precisely why I’m skeptical. It is too much like religion: it promises everything, delivers nothing (but hope) and is based almost entirely on faith in the future.”

Such a perspective confuses the subculture of cryonics with the idea of cryonics itself. You can read religious aspirations into cryonics but you can also ignore them to look at the idea in its most charitable form.

Cryonics is an experimental medical procedure that allows people that cannot be sustained by contemporary medical technologies to reach a time when a treatment for their condition may be available. Such decision making under uncertainty has nothing to do with “faith” and “hope” but requires that we update our probabilities based on the available evidence from fields such as neuroscience, cryobiology, and molecular nanotechnology. While Shermer has later (rather unsuccessfully) attempted to qualify the statements made in his original article, his column is rather representative of how many critics of cryonics operate; mischaracterize its premises and procedures, avoid a discussion of the technical feasibility of molecular repair, and change the subject to psychological and philosophical issues.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine September 2013

04. October 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Science

The goal of any credible cryonics organization is to develop reversible cryopreservation to avoid passing on problems with the cryopreservation process itself to the next generation. While there is a lot of recognition for the need to eliminate cryoprotectant toxicity, it is rather obvious that it will not be possible to restore integrated function in a fractured brain.

The 2011 3rd Quarter issue of Cryonics magazine features a comprehensive update on intermediate temperature storage (ITS) by Dr. Brian Wowk. This article contains an important observation:

“Acoustic events consistent with fracturing were found to be universal during cooling through the cryogenic temperature range. They occurred whether patients were frozen or vitrified. If cryoprotection is good, they typically begin below the glass transition temperature (-123°C for M22 vitrification solution). If cryoprotective perfusion does not go well, then fracturing events begin at temperatures as warm as -90°C. Higher fracturing temperatures are believed to occur when tissue freezes instead of vitrifies because freezing increases the glass transition temperature of solution between ice crystals. The temperature at which fractures begin is therefore believed to be a surrogate measure of goodness of cryoprotection, with lower temperatures being better.”

This is an important observation because one of the arguments that is still being made against intermediate temperature storage is that Alcor routinely records fracturing events above the nominal glass transition temperature (Tg) of the vitrification solution. But if we recognize that such events can be (partly) attributed to ice formation due to ischemia-induced perfusion impairment it should be obvious that the recording of fracturing events above Tg as such cannot be an argument against ITS. After all, we also do not argue against the use of vitrification solutions because ice formation will still occur in ischemic patients that are perfused with vitrification solutions. Because cryonics patients almost invariably suffer some degree of ischemia prior to cryoprotective perfusion and cryopreservation, our knowledge about fracturing events in “ideal” human cases remains incomplete.

Hugh Hixon has developed a “crackphone” to detect acoustic events that are presumed to reflect fracturing events. A preliminary survey of the data reveals, roughly, that the first temperature at which cracking events are recorded is lower for the newer generation of vitrification solutions than for the older glycerol solutions. Does this mean that fracturing occurs at lower temperatures in “vitrified” patients? “The lowest first fracturing event recorded at Alcor was at a temperature of -134°C for M22.”

Is this what we can expect for M22 for all patients, or was this an “ideal” case, too? Would -130°C be a safe storage temperature? Does molecular-scale ice nucleation, as distinct from ice growth, constitute damage? Despite all the articles and discussions that have been devoted to the topic of intermediate temperature storage, we do not seem to know much yet about fracturing in (large) tissues that are well equilibrated with a vitrification solution and subjected to a responsible cooling protocol. While the crackphone data seem to support the use of the newer vitrification solutions for reducing fracturing, controlled studies of fracturing in vitrified tissues will need to be conducted in a lab to really understand what we can expect under ideal (non-ischemic) circumstances.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine July 2013

04. October 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics

Since I have been involved in the field of cryonics I have encountered two distinct views on the marketing of cryonics. One view holds that cryonics is characterized by a disproportional involvement of scientists, intellectuals, and people with computer backgrounds who are totally unequipped to sell the idea to the larger masses. The marketing of cryonics should be done by people with a “business” or “marketing” background.

The other view is that people who expect a lot from marketing of cryonics are blind to the most obvious fact about our field. Most people reject cryonics and don’t want it. No sane business would spend vast amounts of time and money on a product or service that people don’t want.

While I am personally more sympathetic to the latter perspective, I suspect that a rather obvious point is being overlooked. What seems to matter a great deal is how cryonics is conceptualized and “sold” to the general public. Let me illustrate this by contrasting two really different ways of talking about cryonics. I am purposely simplifying things here to get the point across.

1. The belief in a “soul” (or dualism) is nonsense. There is nothing in our understanding of the laws of physics that prohibits the manipulation of matter at the molecular level and extremely long lives will be possible, even for people considered “dead” today. Technology is accelerating towards the Singularity. Most likely, cryopreserved people will be resuscitated as substrate-independent minds. Cryonics is part of the broader “immortalist” and “transhumanist” movements. Not all people agree with us and we need to identify the biases that give rise to these attitudes so we can change their minds. If you are concerned about resuscitation in a different and strange world, you need to toughen up.

2. Current developments in science and medicine increasingly throw doubts on the idea of “death” as a single and uniform event. We can stabilize people at ultra-low temperatures to allow them to benefit from future medical developments. Cryonics is a logical extension of other medical procedures in which people are stabilized for further treatment. The pace of technological progress may not be linear but assuming complete scientific and technological stasis is not reasonable either. Cryonics raises a lot of concerns for many people. We have to address these concerns and calibrate our message to show that cryonics is not something threatening but something aimed at preserving lives and keeping people together.

Now, think about these different ways of conceptualizing cryonics from the perspective of marketing. It seems to me that the first perspective is not only extraordinary difficult to sell but that the most proper expectation here would be more akin to damage control. If you are frustrated about the fact that you are always discussing “something else” instead of cryonics there is a good chance that this is the result of either a lack of restraint in promoting other ideas you care about under the rubric of cryonics or that the person in question has read just too many popular accounts about cryonics that discuss the Singularity, immortality, mind uploading, or chopping off heads. As much as I hate to admit it, some of the bad PR surrounding cryonics is self-inflicted.

If anyone would ask me today if successful marketing of cryonics is possible I would answer that this really depends on whether we are trying to sell a complete worldview that most people seem to reject or whether we are trying to connect to the rest of us with a proposal to update our current views on what it means to practice critical care medicine and end-of-life care.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, June, 2013

04. October 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience

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

03. October 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics

In a previous column called “Iatrogenesis and Cryonics” I observed that cryonics is uniquely vulnerable to iatrogenic injury because the objectives of individual cryonics procedures (such as stabilization) are not clearly defined and due to the lack of obvious feedback that a low temperature stabilization procedure entails. This does not mean that cryonics advocates have not thought about how to look at the overall quality of a cryonics case. On the most general level we can evaluate a cryonics case by looking at the degree to which the cryonics stabilization procedure itself adds additional injury to the patient. This is important because critics of cryonics are usually more skeptical about the effects of stabilizing the patient at cryogenic temperatures than about the idea that a person who is considered terminally ill today may not be considered terminally ill in the future. The idea that the cryonics procedure itself does not add additional injury to the patient also ties in with the idea that one of the most important mandates of medicine is to do no harm.

What can a credible cryonics organization do to move its procedures in the direction of reversibility? At the most general level it can reflect this by formally recognizing the goal of developing human cryopreservation technologies that are injury-free. In terms of a research objective, this means that it should aim for human suspended animation. The idea of reversible human cryopreservation is straightforward and easy to communicate. In fact, most laypeople who first hear about cryonics intuitively grasp this point. It also provides a useful benchmark to assess the degree of technological progress at a cryonics organization and evaluate the performance of a cryonics organization in cryopreserving humans.

But how can the concept of reversibility be applied to a cryonics organization that has not yet perfected reversible human cryopreservation? In this case one can still ask how far we can push the goal of reversibility. This raises another challenge. How can we know to what point our procedures are still reversible if we do not actually reverse them? For starters, we can look at the limits of conventional medicine (hypothermic circulatory arrest) and ensure that our procedures conform to the physiological requirements of these procedures. Another (complementary) approach is to define reversibility as maintaining viability of the brain and collect data that will provide us with an answer regarding how well we have achieved this objective.

As I write this, our understanding is that, under ideal circumstances, we can keep the brain viable up to at least the early stages of cryoprotective perfusion (which is conducted around 0° Celsius). It would be desirable to have a better empirical understanding of this, and one approach would be to take a very small, microliter brain sample of a patient (an established harmless medical procedure) and subject it to a variety of viability assays (such as the K+/Na+ ratio). A fruitful research objective would be to achieve loading and unloading of a vitrifiable concentration of cryoprotectant in the brain and recover organized electrical activity (EEG) in a
suitable animal model and then modify this protocol for human cases. If we achieve this, viability of the brain may be retained during the descent to cryogenic temperatures.

Currently the “descent to cryogenic temperatures” is not a completely innocuous step because thermal stress-induced fracturing can still produce mechanical damage. To eliminate this form of damage and transform the challenge of reversible human cryopreservation into a biochemical problem, intermediate temperature storage appears to be a requirement.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, March, 2013

29. April 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Science, Society

On Sunday May 12, 2013, the Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics will organize a symposium about the resuscitation and reintegration of cryonics patients in Portland, Oregon. To our knowledge, this is the first public meeting exclusively concerned with the repair, resuscitation, and reintegration of cryonics patients.

The symposium is being held at The Cleaners at Ace Hotel (The Cleaners at Ace Hotel 403 SW 10TH AVE, 97205) in downtown Portland, Oregon from 10:00 am to 07:00 pm.

Admission is free. Registration for the event is possible at the event Facebook page.

On Saturday evening, the day prior to the symposium, Aubrey de Grey and Max More will be speaking about rejuvenation biotechnologies and cryonics at the Paragon Restaurant & Bar in Portland, Oregon.

Admission for this event is free and registration for this event is possible on the event Facebook page, too.

The current line-up of speakers is as follows (the exact schedule will be announced soon):

Macromolecular temperature is a quantification of atomic-level molecular motion. The ability to maintain and reconstruct cryonics patients could be critically dependent on low temperature atomic/molecular motion and on the ability to operate nanomachines at cryogenic temperatures. Possible problems and solutions will be discussed.

Bio: Ben Best was President of the Cryonics Society of Canada for about a decade, after which he was President of the Cryonics Institute for nearly a decade. He is currently Director of Research Oversight for the Life Extension Foundation. The cryonics section of his website is one of the best sources of information about the science behind cryonics available on the internet ( www.benbest.com/cryonics/cryonics.html )


Complete preservation of the “connectome” should be sufficient for meaningful resuscitation attempts of cryonics patients but it may not be necessary. As long as the original connectome can be inferred from what is preserved, damage associated with cerebral ischemia or suboptimal cryonics technologies do not necessarily exclude future resuscitation. In this presentation I will present a general framework for reconstructive connectomics and explore theoretical and experimental research directions for reconstructing damaged and altered connectomes.

Bio: Chana de Wolf lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a business manager and biomedical researcher. She holds a B.S. in Experimental Psychology (2001), an M.S. in Cognition and Neuroscience (2003), and has extensive management and laboratory experience. She has several years of experience working as a research assistant in a variety of laboratory environments, and has taught college-level courses in neuroscience lab methods and biology. She is a Director and researcher for Advanced Neural Biosciences. Chana joined as a member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in 2007 where she also worked as a Research Associate at Alcor to help build a sustainable, multi-faceted cryonics research program


Being, now or following revival from cryopreservation, ultimately depends on one’s ability to experience and to do so in the manner that is characteristic of one’s individual mind. Recently, it has become possible to address this problem in a concrete and systematic manner, largely due to rapid advances in computational neuroscience and data acquisition, both structurally (the popular field of “connectomics”) and functionally (brain activity mapping). The process of personal experience – like any process – involves some mechanisms operating at a given time under the influence of an environment state, a state that can include sensory input and functional “memory” established as a result of prior conditions. An emulation or prosthesis is then the attempt to replace a system of processing with an equivalent set of mechanisms that carry out the same processing within established success criteria. The engineering approach to understanding a system sufficiently that it can be emulated or replaced by prostheses is known as system identification. I will describe how system identification may be feasibly carried out for an individual human brain, and how constraints and requirements can be learned through projects with iterative improvements. I will present the projects that are underway to develop neuroscience tools with which successful system identification may be accomplished.

Bio: Dr. Randal A. Koene is CEO and Founder of the not-for-profit science foundation Carboncopies.org as well as the neural interfaces company NeuraLink Co. Dr. Koene is Science Director of the 2045 Initiative and a scientific board member in several neurotechnology companies and organizations.


The proper ultimate goal of cryonics is reversible suspended animation. While we should continually strive for that goal, we do not know if or when it will be fully achieved. Until then, we must grapple with the probability that cryopreservation will in itself not fully preserve personal identity critical information. A revived individual may be missing pieces of his or her life, or some of the existing pieces may be fuzzier than they were before clinical death. It may be feasible to fill in the gaps and to sharpen the focus by feeding into the repair and revival process biographical information with a high degree of resolution. That information may also serve to validate the accuracy of a reconstructed connectome. Up to the present, cryonics organizations have offered minimal storage of personal-identity relevant information. In this talk, I will consider ways in which members of cryonics organizations could use the emerging tools and technologies associated with the “Quantified Self” concept to capture and record detailed biographical information, and how cryonics organizations could assist with this and convey the resulting data to a future capable of repairing and resuscitating cryonics patients.

Bio: Max More is the President & Chief Executive Officer of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. More has a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from St. Anne’s College, Oxford University (1984-87). He was awarded a Dean’s Fellowship in Philosophy in 1987 by the University of Southern California. He studied and taught philosophy at USC with an emphasis on philosophy of mind, ethics, and personal identity, completing his Ph.D. in 1995, with a dissertation that examined issues including the nature of death, and what it is about each individual that continues despite great change over time.


Given the host of complicated problems to be solved before resuscitation of cryonics patients is possible, it is easy to leave planning for their reintegration for another day. However, this assumes that there is nothing particularly important that can be done about reintegration prior to patient cryopreservation, which might be impossible, or at least far more difficult afterward. It also underestimates the impact that fear of dis-integration has on individuals’ decisions on whether to sign up for cryonics, which might be alleviated if we had more concrete plans for reintegration, with presently actionable components. In this talk, Keegan Macintosh will survey several aspects of cryonics patient reintegration, both legal and logistical, that can be tangibly worked on today.

Bio: Keegan Macintosh received his J.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2012, and is Executive Director of the Lifespan Society of British Columbia, a non-profit organization established to educate the public on life extension strategies and protect access to potentially life-saving technologies. Keegan is a board member of the Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics, as well as the Cryonics Society of Canada.


Cryonics aims to stabilize critically ill patients at low temperatures in anticipation of future medical treatment. While the concept of cell repair is often associated with the practice of cryonics, it is not an intrinsic element of the procedure. Advanced cryonics technologies will permit reversible cryopreservation of the patient. If human suspended animation would be achieved cryonics would solely involve future treatment of the patient’s disease and its underlying pathologies. In this talk I will discuss why reversible cryopreservation is important and which technical obstacles need to be overcome to make it a reality.

Bio: Aschwin is a Director and researcher for Advanced Neural Biosciences, the editor of Cryonics magazine, serves as a consultant for a number of cryonics organizations, and has published technical articles on various cryonics topics.

25. April 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Arts & Living, Cryonics, Society

Anyone who has ever reflected on the fragility of human life and the seemingly inevitable rise and fall of complex societies cannot fail to be concerned about the fate of patients in cryopreservation. Cryonics organizations have learned from the early days and abandoned the practice of accepting patients without complete prepayment – a practice that almost invariably guarantees a tragic loss of life when family members or the cryonics organization can no longer afford to care for them. Alcor has given a lot of thought to the financial and legal requirements of keeping patients in cryopreservation but it is understandable that people question the prospect of cryonics patients making it to the time where a suitable treatment of their disease will be available.

This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that cryonics patients do not have the legal standing that ordinary human beings (or patients) enjoy. If the media revealed blatant incompetence in a local hospital, it would be inconceivable that the existing patients would be abandoned and left to die. In cryonics there is a far greater risk of abandoning both the organization and the patients, despite the safeguards that some cryonics organizations have made to separate the organization from the maintenance of patients. In fact, the most rabid opponents of cryonics have little patience for the idea that abandoning cryonics patients could one day be considered one of the most tragic events in the history of medicine.

The first step to protect cryonics patients is to strengthen your cryonics organization and the legal and logistical structures that have been erected to keep them in cryopreservation. But almost just as important is to give people who have not made cryonics arrangements themselves reasons to protect them. In the case of surviving family members that is usually not a challenge but time may eventually pass the direct descendants of those people by as well. One important practice that can be strengthened is to give these people a face. Cryopreserved persons are not just a homogenous group of anonymous people (unless they chose to be so!) but are our friends, family members, and patients who would like their story to be told.

Fortunately, in the age of the internet this has become a lot easier. Social networking websites like Facebook retain the profiles of deceased and cryopreserved persons unless the family requests removal. Cryonics organizations themselves can offer opportunities for members, friends, and family members to maintain their presence online. Last but not least, there are a lot more people who support cryonics and protection of cryonics patients than people who have made actual cryonics arrangements and these people can be involved and organized as well. As evidenced on a daily basis, you do not have to benefit yourself to support a cause. Cryonics is not just an individual seeking an experimental procedure but part of a broader social movement that hopes to update the way we think about death. In fact, Alcor now offers Associate Membership for those who want to support our mission but do not desire to make arrangement themselves, or not yet.

It is easier to dispose of people who are nameless, who have been removed from the social fabric of life, and who are only perceived as anonymous vehicles of an “erroneous” idea. We cannot decide that resuscitation will work but we can decide to keep their memories alive and personalities present to help them reach that opportunity.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, April, 2013

22. March 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Health

Wikipedia tells us that iatrogenesis is “an inadvertent adverse effect or complication resulting from medical treatment or advice…” The key word in this definition is “inadvertent.” For example, a doctor who exposes a patient to a bacterial infection by accidentally donning non-surgical gloves is an example of iatrogenesis. A doctor who deliberately administers a lethal dose of an anesthetic is not. One source of iatrogenesis is adverse effects.

A defining characteristic of contemporary human cryopreservation is that it is not possible to stabilize patients at very low temperatures without producing additional damage. Forms of injury in cryonics include ice formation, cryoprotectant toxicity, and fracturing. The relevance of the concept of iatrogenic diseases to cryonics was first recognized by Thomas Donaldson in his article “Neural Archeology” (Cryonics, February 1987). What sets cryonics apart is that cost-benefit analysis favors cryopreservation in a sense not encountered in ordinary medicine. Cryonics is the last hope to save the life of the patient and the alternative course of action is irreversible death.

One could say that the adverse effects of cryonics are a form iatrogenic injury, but since the major adverse effects of cryonics are known and recognized, cryonics cannot be brought under the rubric of iatrogenesis. But just as medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies allocate resources to developing drugs with fewer or less serious adverse effects, Alcor aims to improve procedures to eliminate these forms of injury. Examples include vitrification agents to eliminate ice formation, intermediate temperature storage to eliminate (or reduce) fracturing, rapid cooling devices to decrease ischemic injury, etc. The ultimate goal is to create a low temperature stabilization procedure that does not induce any additional injury. Such an achievement would constitute true human suspended animation. We would not be able to treat the disease of the patient yet, but could induce biostasis and reverse it without any adverse effects.

There is narrower application of the idea of iatrogenic injury to specific elements of cryonics procedures. For example, if a multiperson team is present at the bedside with a portable ice bath, ice, and a functioning chest compression device, but later analysis of the temperature data reveals negligible cooling, negligence or error may be involved. This is a rather dramatic example and most examples of non-intrinsic iatrogenic injury in cryonics have a subtler character. Cryonics is particularly vulnerable to iatrogenic injury because of the lack of clear objectives for the individual procedures and the lack of
consistent and comprehensive monitoring.

A rather disappointing excuse for permitting additional injury is the view that since cryonics patients will require advanced repair technologies in the future anyway it is not of great importance to minimize adverse effects of the cryonics procedures themselves. Such an attitude encourages recklessness, makes a mockery of the idea of human cryopreservation as medicine, and is not the kind of cryonics that is going to win over scientists, medical professionals, and the educated public. We do not know at which point injury translates into irreversible identity destruction, but we do know that the closer our procedures conform to reversible human suspended animation the less likely it is that we are wandering into that territory.

Cryonics cannot be disqualified merely because it introduces adverse effects. We know it does and we have no choice but to accept this. But an aggressive pursuit of human suspended animation will eliminate these adverse effects step-by-step so a future doctor will no longer need to worry about the effects of the cryonics procedure itself.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, February, 2013