11. October 2014 · Comments Off on Symposium on Cryonics and Brain-Threatening Disorders Report · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience

Cryonics MagazineSeptember-October 2012

On Saturday, July 7, 2012, I attended the Symposium on Cryonics and Brain-Threatening Disorders in Portland, Oregon. The symposium was the “brain child” of Aschwin de Wolf, who also kindly invited me to give a presentation on treatments to mitigate Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). The symposium was organized by the Institute for Evidence-Based Cryonics and Cryonics Northwest.

It has been said that cryonics arrangements are made by people who think about things other people would rather not think about – in this case, one’s personal mortality. Like the sun in the sky, we can be aware of its presence, but prefer not to look at it. Dementia is in the same category. Despite the fact that anyone who lives long enough (cryonicists are usually life-extensionists) is much more likely than not to get dementia, even cryonicists are often reluctant to plan for becoming demented. Aschwin deserves a lot of credit for not only being a cryonicist, but for organizing (with his wife Chana) the world’s first symposium/conference dealing with the subject of cryonics and dementia. It is all the more impressive because Aschwin is a man in his 30s.

The symposium required no registration, registration fee, or notification of attendance. One man attended because another attendee had informed his wife of the event while on an airplane to Portland. There were only about 30 people at the event, but the quality of the attendees and presenters was very high. The event was held at Kaos Softwear, a manufacturing company where Chana is a manager. All the talks were allotted one full hour.

Chana, who has a master’s degree in neuroscience, was the first presenter. Her topic was neurogenesis — the creation of new neurons. Although neurogenesis was discovered in 1965, because neurons are post-mitotic (are non-dividing cells), the discovery was viewed with skepticism until the discovery of neural stem cells in 1992. Neurogenesis only occurs in two discrete areas of the mammalian brain: in the olfactory system and in the hippocampus. The latter is more crucial, although the exclusion of the cerebral cortex is of great concern insofar as that is the probable location of memory, identity, and decision-making. The hippocampus prepares new memories for long-term storage in the cerebral cortex. Chana asked lots of questions for which there are yet no answers. Why does the hippocampus need to create new neurons in the creation of new memories? How is neurogenesis used? How is neurogenesis regulated? Neurogenesis declines with age, and is enhanced with exercise or ischemia. Ultimately, endogenous neurogenesis does not appear to hold much promise as a repair strategy for AD or other forms of dementia. However, it is a worthwhile endeavor to understand neurogenesis in order to guide our own attempts at neuronal repair and/or replacement.

Aubrey de Grey began his talk by acknowledging that none of the work being funded in the 2012 $4.5 million budget of his SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Foundation is focused on repairing the brain, although there is a project determining the rate of accumulation of epimutations, that is not focused on repair. He spent the first half-hour reviewing the SENS program, and the next 15 minutes explaining why 3 of the 7 SENS strategies are particularly applicable to dementia: (1) Neurofibrillary tangles and soluble amyloid in Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and their counterparts in other neurodegenerative diseases, are intracellular junk, (2) amyloid plaque in AD is extracellular junk, and (3) late-stage neurodegeneration involves cell loss. Dr. de Grey said that intracellular junk shows signs of failed autophagy. He said that most of the intracellular junk in dementia is protein. It should be easier to dispose of than the cholesterol degradation products which are the focus of SENS lysosome work on atherosclerosis, but which are not properly delivered to the lysosome. He outlined the circumstantial evidence that the main problem may be the same as in atherosclerosis, i.e. oxidized cholesterol poisoning the lysosome. He spoke of the current clinical trials for having microglia eliminate extracellular junk (amyloid plaques). The first human clinical trials had shown great promise, but were halted because 5% of the patients developed brain inflammations. The newer trials have apparently corrected that problem. Aubrey noted the widespread belief that the amyloid would be removed without being of much benefit – expressing his belief that this misses the point, because major postponement or reversal of AD will require fixing all three main problems, hence lack of benefit from fixing one is not evidence that that one need not be fixed. I am one of the skeptics because follow-up autopsies on the first trials showed that even when amyloid plaques had been completely removed, no reduction in degeneration had occurred [THE LANCET; Holmes,C; 372:216 (2008)]. By the time AD is diagnosed, neurodegeneration is too far along to be helped by removing amyloid (though there is rapid progress in improving very early diagnosis). Immunization to remove amyloid would be more effective if begun in the 20s or 30s, much like shots for measles or polio — as prevention rather than cure. Although amyloid may serve a positive function in repair or it would not have evolved. [Aubrey notes: who says it evolved? “Aging is a product of evolutionary neglect, not evolutionary intent” (Hayflick)]. Concerning cell loss, Aubrey was sanguine about Jean Hebert’s work exploiting the fact that certain neural progenitor cells are highly migratory, potentially facilitating widespread distribution of new neurons throughout the neocortex via stem cell therapies. Even if neurons can be replaced in the neocortex, I wonder how that would compensate for the loss of synaptic connections and strength of synaptic connections. Of the three approaches mentioned by Dr. de Grey, I would say that removal of intracellular junk has the best chance of being of benefit on its own, because it is the neurofibrillary tangles that tend to cause cell death rather than the amyloid plaques, which are an upstream event.

My talk was basically a summary of the “Alzheimer’s Disease: Molecular Mechanisms” page in the life extension section of my website BENBEST.COM. I wrote the page in 2003 between leaving my job as bond database support for Scotiabank in Toronto, Canada, and becoming president of the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. For the subsequent 9 years I have become increasingly displeased about how out-dated the webpage was becoming. So I was pleased at the opportunity to do the massive research required to update that webpage for this symposium. Unfortunately, it was all I could do to finish the updating before catching my flight to Portland. Aschwin and Chana allowed me to crash at their condominium. I missed the Friday evening social for those attending the symposium because I spent all evening and a couple of hours the next morning creating my PowerPoint. I was pleased with the result, however, and pleased with the presentation I was able to deliver.

I encourage anyone interested in the content of my talk to consult my Alzheimer’s webpage because that page has detailed linkable references which I could not include in my presentation. I believe that the most promising therapy is the targeting of copper with PBT2, which removes copper from amyloid without chelating essential element metals. Etanercept, which antagonizes the inflammatory cytokine TNF-alpha has also shown promising results. Possibly also, passive immunization with tau antibodies would be of greater benefit in stopping neurodegeneration than immunological approaches against amyloid. Concerning prevention, exercise, curcumin, pomegranate juice, and folic supplementation have shown good results. Seemingly conflicting results would indicate that ginko biloba can slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients, but is of no benefit in preventing the disease.

Mike Perry’s topic was Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease. On that subject he reported that the CerebroSpinal Fluid (CSF) is low in amyloid beta and high in phosphorylated tau protein. I had put much more detail on this subject into the biomarkers section of my webpage on Alzheimer’s Disease – which I showed to Mike later in the day. In his presentation Mike noted even for people who do not get AD, dementia of some kind is still very probable with aging. He commented that AD is not a terminal illness, which is defined as an illness in which two physicians have certified that the patient probably has no more than six months left to live. No AD patient dies of AD — the cause of death is usually infection (pneumonia, bedsores, urinary tract infection, etc.). I expressed concern that suicide by VSED (Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking, as Mike calls it) by an AD victim could lead to autopsy. Mike denied that this was necessarily the case.  I was told that for anyone who had died by refusing food and water the cause of death would be obvious, and no autopsy would be required, though circumstances and policies will vary. Mike Darwin, however, noted that VSED could be harmful to the brain as cardiac arrest draws near, due to low respiration rates. Aschwin responded that this kind of brain damage is still relatively benign in comparison to the alternative (advanced dementia). James Swayze, who is a paraplegic with cryonics arrangements and was in attendance at this event, has expressed concerns that dehydration causes brain damage. Dehydration may reduce brain functionality, but brain dehydration is a key process in removing water from the brain in the vitrification point of view and is probably a benefit rather than a harm for cryonics purposes.  Alzeimer’s patients nearly always die of infection, and because infection may also occur early in the disease,  Mike Darwin recommended that anti-microbial treatment be refused by an Alzheimer’s victim as a way of hastening cryopreservation. If infection does not occur early in the disease, however, refusing antibiotics may not produce the desired result.

Keegan Macintosh, who recently graduated from a Canadian law school, presented on the subject of Thomas Donaldson’s 1988 lawsuit in California to be cryopreserved before his brain cancer destroyed too much of his brain to make cryonics a worthwhile effort. Keegan criticized the attorneys involved in the appeal for arguing that Donaldson’s right to “premortem cryopreservation” stemmed from a constitutionally-protected right to assisted suicide, rather than the right to pursue a risky, but potentially life-saving procedure. By framing the case this way, the Court was able to avoid having to consider Donaldson’s unique and crucially relevant motive, and thus the possibility of cryonics succeeding, for him or anyone else. Acknowledging, however, that options for assisted suicide could be of use to cryonicists with brain-threatening disorders, Keegan examined developments in American law on the issue, and then turned to Canadian jurisprudence. He pointed out a number of potentially significant differences between the U.S. Supreme Court’s substantive due process analysis in the more recent physician-assisted suicide cases, Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill, and Supreme Court of Canada’s approach to section 7 of Canada’s Charter Rights and Freedoms (right to life, liberty and security of the person) in Rodriguez v British Columbia, and cases since. The government’s position is presumably influenced by a desire to avoid a “slippery-slope” that disvalues human life. Keegan noted that although formerly other countries looked to the American Constitution for guidance, Canada’s constitution is now the world’s most popular role-model. Section 2 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms emphasizes “freedom of conscience and religion.”

What would be the effect of someone acting on the belief that pre-mortem cremation is the road to salvation? “Freedom of conscience” implies that secular morality is as important as religious belief and there is some emerging jurisprudence to that effect. Would the belief that good-quality cryopreservation is necessary to live again at some future time not then receive equal protection to analogous beliefs and practices of religious origin? Keegan believes that an appeal such as Donaldson’s – and indeed any constitutional challenge against a law impeding access to cryonics – would have a better chance of success in Canada than in the United States.

Max More spoke without slides on the subject of “Survival, Identity, and Extended Mind.” The objective of Max’s talk was to consider how it could be possible to back-up personal identity-relevant information and then reintegrate that information to restore personality if cryopreservation has been imperfect. If cognitive processes and their inputs can be external to the brain, Max would like to take advantage of this to improve the chances of reviving people suffering from brain-threatening disorders. Andy Clark and David Chalmers wrote an authoritative paper entitled “The Extended Mind.” According to Max, for an outside object or process to be considered part of the mind, it has to produce results that are reasonably comparable to the components normally seen internally and biologically/neurologically. Clark and Chalmers propose three conditions for considering externally-located processes to be part of an individual’s cognitive processes: 1) constancy (the external component has to be there reliably); 2) accessibility (a natural ease of use of that component); and 3) automatic endorsement (the person must trust the component as they would trust any comparable part of their natural body). Max noted that a few years before the Clark/Chalmers paper he had considered the related issue of when an external technology could be considered part of the self (in chapter 4 of his dissertation: “Technological Transformation and Assimilation”). Although Max doubted Ray Kurzweil’s claim that an externally-convincing simulation of his father (made out of traces available) would actually have a self, Max did not argue that no well-simulated person could have a self. Max suggested that a notebook could be part of the thinking process, rather than just a tool. Nonetheless, he was dubious about the value of keeping lots of diaries, although it has been suggested that biographical information could assist in reconstruction of a cryonics patient and that cryonics organizations should take a more proactive role in fasciliting storage of identity- and memory relevant information. Max was also dubious that a computer that could convincingly simulate a person would have a self. He raised the question “What is self?” He referred to David Hume’s claim to introspectively only be able to discover thoughts and feelings, but no self. Dennett called self an illusion. This would lead me to believe that neither Hume nor Dennett should have much concern with their own survival (like most people?). Max said that he could lose a few memories without feeling his self was compromised — because he believes that personal identity is more than memory. It includes dispositions, values, and so on.

After the presentations there was a panel of all the presenters, plus Aschwin the host. I requested that each panelist explain what they would do if diagnosed with AD. Aschwin said he would immediately proceed to terminate his life under conditions favorable to cryopreservation provided that the diagnosis was credible and there are no short-term cures on the horizon. Keegan said that he would see first what, if any, time he had before symptoms such as apathy and denial would be expected to set in, and take some conservative portion of that time remaining to spend some quality time with family and friends. Keegan noted that, despite our best efforts, cryonics may not work, and thus it is rational to seek meaningful experiences in the moments one knows they have left, if such can be done without irreparably compromising one’s cryopreservation. I noted that Robert Ettinger also said he would terminate life by hypothermia in a cold bathtub at the end of a party with friends – but delayed such an action to the point where he lost consciousness and lost the ability to do any such thing at the age of 92 when he deanimated. I said that I would probably spend about a year attempting to confirm the diagnosis, and might delay further trying to determine if a cure was possible or forthcoming soon. Max said that he would want a second opinion, but like Keegan wanted to have some joyful time before self-termination. Chana said that she would be very concerned about how the decision to self-terminate would affect others, in particular how to explain to her family why she was ending her life while outwardly being in good health. Chana and Aschwin spoke of being sensitive to each other’s feelings about the matter. Aschwin noted that those who care for AD family members to a natural death often suffer from severe caregiver depression. Chana said that once she had decided to pull the plug that she would “find a way to take a bath in Agent Orange and take advantage of Oregon laws.” By this she meant she would find a way to give herself an aggressive form of cancer that would cause two Oregon physicians to declare that she is a terminal patient. Once this is done, an Oregon physician can write a prescription for phenobarbital which the patient can use for suicide by overdose at the time and place of their choosing. Aubrey said that he would delay the decision without worrying too much about loss of neurons. In addition to delaying because of diagnosis confirmation and evaluating hope for a cure within a short time period, Aubrey added evaluating the likelihood that cryopreservation procedures would be improved by waiting. Mike Perry said that he would try to confirm the diagnosis and if sure about it, “get it [deanimation] over with as soon as possible.”

I mentioned the case of a CI Member dying of cancer who, with her husband, called Suspended Animation, Inc., to be present at their suicide. Her 30-year-old husband was in good health, but did not want to live without his wife and planned to die along with her. CI terminated both their memberships and established a policy of reserving the right to cancel cryonics contracts in cases of suicide. Aschwin strongly disapproved of this CI policy. In his opinion, cryonics organizations should never encourage or condone suicide but should not refuse cryopreservation to those who have taken their own lives. I believe cryonics organizations cannot be seen as encouraging the hastening of death on the ground that cryonics may work, and must ensure that others do not get that impression. Not enough was said about what policies would be most appropriate for cryonics organizations.

I asked Aubrey if he thought that an AD patient would ever be so advanced that SENS could not save the self. Aubrey agreed that could happen, but it would be difficult to say when. The case is similar with straight frozen patients or patients with varying amounts of ischemic damage. The concept of “information theoretic death” is meaningful, but difficult to determine. Even if SENS methods could not recover enough memory and identity to save a person, some future molecular archeology might be able to do so.

There was some discussion about the most promising treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. Aschwin pointed out that both early-onset Alzheimer’s and late onset Alzheimer’s have a strong genetic component, which should favor the use of gene therapy.

Mike described the activities of the Venturists, which is offering to save Venturist Members who are being cryopreserved by a cryonics organization that fails. Another project of the Venturists is that they are seeking $50,000 for Mike Darwin, who lost his cryopreservation arrangements with Alcor due to financial difficulties.

04. October 2014 · Comments Off on Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience, Science

Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 384 pages, 2012.

[This review originally appeared in Venturist News and Views, June-July 2012, 6-7 and Cryonics, September-October 2012]

The scientific perspective that informs Sebastian Seung’s bestselling popular neuroscience book Connectome is so familiar to cryonicists that the bulk of this book could be mistaken for an extensive introduction to the philosophy of mind embodied in cryonics. His book offers a rigorous exposition of the view that our identity is encoded in the connections between neurons, the “connectome,” which itself is shaped by our genes and life experience. The strength of this book is not only its review of the empirical evidence that supports this outlook but its encouraging the reader to think about its implications.  Readers who are intimately familiar with the argument in favor of cryonics should not assume that there is little to learn from this book. As imaging and storage technologies evolve, cryonicists can do more now than in the past to learn about their individual connectome, strengthening the likelihood of successful resuscitation.

One important element of the connectionist premise that structures Seung’s book is that it does not completely resolve competing theories about how the brain works. For example, the recognition that long-term memory (and identity) does not depend on transient electrical activity but has a more robust long-term physical basis that persists during cessation of brain activity (examples are hypothermic circulatory arrest and short periods of cardiac arrest) does not imply a single perspective on how the genome provides the neurological bases for memory formation, retention, recollection, and re-prioritization. One interesting perspective, “neural Darwinism,” which was anticipated by the multi-talented classical-liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, proposes a theory of brain function in which a genetically determined wiring of the brain is subject to competing experiences that strengthen or weaken populations of synapses throughout life. One of the interesting implications of this theory is that consciousness can be treated as an emergent outcome of micro-events in the brain, instead of a mysterious, autonomous property of the brain (think of the curious concept of “free will”).

Seung devotes two chapters to the nature-nurture debate through a connectionist perspective. One of the unfortunate effects of the nature-nurture distinction is that it masks the obvious point that what we call “nurture” (upbringing, environment, etc.) is not exempt from biology but simply concerns the relationship between biological systems and between a biological system and its physical environment. Social scientists who have a strong “nurture”-bias should therefore not be exempted from describing “nurture” in verifiable physical terms, something that many of them do not feel the slightest obligation to do. Another unattractive feature of this debate is that it is routinely portrayed as one between genetic determinists and “environmentalists.” In reality, the debate is mostly between serious scholars who acknowledge that behavior and learning are shaped by both genetics and the environment and those who basically consider the mind a blank slate—a position that is clearly contradicted by existing science but remains popular as a premise in contemporary public policy and certain political ideologies. One of the interesting topics that Seung discusses in these chapters is whether the plasticity of the brain changes over time.

From the perspective of cryonics, the relationship between the genome and the connectome is of great importance. If some of the basic wiring of the brain that encodes personality and temperament is determined by genes and is fixed (or mostly fixed) at an early age, then some parts of the connectome might be inferred from a person’s genome, which opens up an exciting research program for cryonics. A systematic study of the field where genetics meets neurodevelopment might help in understanding the relationship between the genome and brain ultrastructure. This in turn could assist in future resuscitation attempts. To date, the assumption in cryonics has been that the complete ultrastructure of the patient must be preserved (or at least preserved in such a manner that it can be inferred), but if some of it can be inferred from the genome the repair requirements for resuscitation of cryonics patients may be relaxed. Looking for such invariable features in variable brains is an important element of a credible cryonics resuscitation research program.

The power of comparing connectomes is also recognized by Seung in a separate chapter (“Comparing”). There he reviews technologies and approaches to compare connectomes with the goal of understanding personality differences and understanding neuropathologies or “connectopathies.” This chapter is one of several in which the author reviews the existing and emerging technologies that are enabling us to produce a complete connectome, including the innovative equipment of cryonicist and Alcor member Kenneth Hayworth to perform serial electron microscopy. Also discussed are technologies such as diffusion MRI (dMRI), which allows for non-invasive mapping of the connectome at the macro scale using water as a probe. This technology may not be adequate to map the connectome at the cellular level but its contribution to comparative connectomics has already been recognized. It may also hold promise as a means to collect identity-critical information about an individual while alive, which again may lessen the computational challenges involved in cryonics resuscitation. One of the exciting prospects of the field of connectomics is that it can contribute to a further narrowing of the challenges involved in restoring cryonics patients to good health.

Seung closes his chapters on emerging technologies with a review of the prospects of connectomics for the treatment of neurological diseases. One of the potential treatments involves the re-programming of a person’s own (skin) cells to neurons, which can then be introduced in the brain to treat a disease or enhance brain function. Such an approach may also be used to fill the “missing gaps” in the brain of a cryonics patient (alternative technologies include molecular construction of neurons by advanced molecular nanotech­nology).

At this point, I think we can foresee a rather optimistic future for cryonics research and the prospect of resuscitation. Instead of conceptualizing cryonics as the preservation of clinically dead people in the hope that future medicine can restore these people to good health, we can envision a more complex, but more encouraging, path. The work of resuscitation and restoring identity is not something that is expected to occur exclusively in the future but rather will be an ongoing process that starts as soon as the patient is cryopreserved. And with the rise of advanced genomics and non-destructive imaging technologies, some of the initial work can be done while the person is still alive. One of the exciting aspects of being a cryonicist today is that you can take proactive steps to learn about your own connectome and other identity-relevant information.

Seung devotes no less than a whole chapter to human cryopreservation (and the associated idea of chemopreservation). The author recognizes that his own views about the connectome are so similar to the philosophy of mind that underpins cryonics that he needs to do some justice to the rationale of cryonics. One unfortunate aspect is that he situates his discussion of cryonics in the context of religion and immortality. It is undeniable that some cryonicists are motivated by visions of personal immortality but this idea is not intrinsic to cryonics (neither is mind uploading or transhumanism.) Properly conceived, cryonics is an experimental medical procedure that aims to stabilize patients at cryogenic temperatures in anticipation of future treatment. What really distinguishes cryonics from mainstream medicine is not uncertainty (which is a fact of life), but the temporal separation of stabilization and treatment. One regrettable implication of attributing religious motives to people who make cryonics arrangements is that it cheapens the use of the word ‘religious.’ Instead of referring to worship of a higher being, it is here used as a strong belief in something in the absence of conclusive evidence. But by putting the bar so low, Seung (unintentionally) classifies many aspects of life, including choosing novel experimental treatments in mainstream medicine, as “religious.”

At one point Seung writes that research aimed at demonstrating that contemporary vitrification technologies can preserve the connectome will “finally bring some science to Ettinger’s wager.” This is a remarkable statement because even the earliest arguments in favor of cryonics were never presented in the form of a pure wager. In his book The Prospect of Immortality, Robert Ettinger reviews existing evidence from cryobiology and neuroscience and argues that, combined with the expectation that medicine will continue to evolve, the choice to be cryopreserved is a rational decision. Since Ettinger’s book cryonics organizations and wealthy donors have expended a lot of money and time in perfecting preservation techniques and looking at the effects of new technologies on the structure and viability of the brain.  Compared to the state of, let’s say, interventive biogerontology, the scientific progress that has been made in cryonics is not trivial. For example, it is doubtful whether the widespread adoption of vitrification in mainstream cryobiology would have been possible without sustained research into using this approach for complex organs by cryonics supporters. To my knowledge, cryonicists have always been quite eager to generate experimental knowledge to inform their decision making. Now that more advanced technologies to map the human brain are becoming available, cryonics organizations are eager to use them instead of just passively maintaining their “faith.”

Ultimately, Seung still fails to recognize that cryonics inherently involves an element of uncertainty that cannot be eliminated without it not being cryonics anymore (i.e., elimination of uncertainty makes it suspended animation). For example, the author recognizes that it is not necessary for a preservation technology to perfectly preserve the connectome as long as it remains possible to infer the original state (or missing information) from what has been preserved. We can speculate what the limits of such “neural archeology” will be, but I do not think anyone can make conclusive arguments. In this sense, cryonics cannot be completely moved from the realm of informed decision making into the realm of indisputable fact. An element of uncertainty will always be associated with it, even if the experimental evidence in favor of this medical procedure keeps mounting.

The author also discusses alternative preservation approaches such as chemical fixation and plastination. One major disadvantage of existing chemical preservation technologies is that they are irreversible by contemporary techniques (literally a “dead end”) and they do not allow for viability assays to distinguish between worse and better preservation techniques. In contrast, in cryobiology, evidence of good ultrastructural preservation is often a starting point (or independent corroboration) to identify cryoprotectants that are able to store complex organs at cryogenic temperatures and restore them without loss of viability. There is one other formidable challenge that will inevitably arise if chemical preservation is offered as a means of personal survival. It is how to deal with the fact that if chemical fixation is delayed perfusion impairment will prevent complete cross-linking of biomolecules. Even more so than cryonics, chemopreservation requires that the procedure be started prior to, or immediately following, circulatory arrest. In absence of this, the fate of a person’s connectome is uncertain, and may even worsen during storage—a problem cryonics is exempt from.

The book ends with a chapter about mind uploading. One misconception about cryonics is that people seek it as a means to mind uploading, or that reviving the person in a computer is the aim of cryonics. In fact, the late Robert Ettinger became a vocal critic of mind uploading in his final years. He offered a lot of arguments for his skepticism but his main concern was that questions about the feasibility of mind uploading are ultimately empirical questions which cannot be settled by deductive reasoning and dogmatic claims about the nature of the mind or consciousness. One of the amusing aspects of the debate about mind uploading is that proponents and skeptics both accuse the other of not being consistent materialists. Interestingly enough, Seung makes an observation relevant to this debate when he writes how the idea that “information is the new soul” is implied in the mind uploading project.

Despite some misgivings about how Seung presents and conceptualizes cryonics, I am unaware of another book that offers such a clear exposition of the relationship between brain and identity that informs human cryopreservation (and chemopreservation). The most rewarding thing for me was a stronger recognition that the idea of the connectome is not just a premise but opens the door to multiple fruitful research programs aimed at personal survival.

About the Author: Sebastian Seung is Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Physics at MIT and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He has made important advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience. His research has been published in leading scientific journals and also featured in the New York Times, Technology Review, and the Economist. (From the dust jacket.)

Dr. Seung was also a speaker at the Alcor-40 conference in October 2012

08. September 2014 · Comments Off on Social Benefits of Rejuvenation Bioechnologies · Categories: Health, Society

When advocates of radical life extension discuss the social benefits of humans having much longer lifespans, it is often just a footnote to a personal desire to prolong life. As a consequence, cynicism from critics is often encountered. It hard to counter such skepticism effectively because people may believe you are just trying to make an essentially selfish desire look socially desirable.

There is an alternative. We can approach the topic from the other direction if we ask what kind of lifespans would be desirable if we want to increase social welfare and reduce human suffering. Let’s look at a number of issues.

There is a large literature about coping with the death of loved ones, relatives, and friends. While many people find support from such self-help books, most people would agree that no amount of anticipation or coping can eliminate the suffering and devastation that follows the death of a loved one. Is there an upside? I am not aware of any serious writer pontificating about the positive aspects about a person dear to you dying or suffering from aging-related disabilities. A society in which humans have control over the aging process would be desirable because it would eliminate the dominant cause of death (age-associated diseases) and the suffering it brings to survivors.

It is not uncommon to hear people being accused of not caring about the effects of their actions on future generations. This complaint is particularly prominent in discussions about the environment and the use of natural resources. If humans were not born to die on a predictable schedule this whole dynamic would change because the distinction between current and future generations would cease to exist. If consideration of the long-term consequences of our actions requires a prominent place in human life, we should not want humans to replace each other but generations to coexist in time and space.

Age discrimination involves discrimination of individuals on the basis of their age. In most instances, however, this discrimination concerns biological age and its effects on appearance, physical health, and mental skills. Biological age is not hard to observe and can usually be inferred from chronological age. If we prefer that people are not treated differently because of their date of birth we should want to live in a society where rejuvenation biotechnologies sever the link between chronological age and biological age.

What about economic welfare? Ageless people would be able to remain productive and generous, medical costs associated with the debilitating health and mental effects of biological aging would be substantially reduced, and highly talented people would not cease to exist.

Reasoning backwards from what morality and welfare would “dictate” about human lifespans is not just a talking point in discussions about the bioethics of life extension. One can imagine the rise of a social movement that seeks to educate the general public about the social benefits of biological control over the aging process. Such a social movement would not be in the business of making excuses for eccentric individual desires but would recommend that the reduction of suffering, sustainable growth, and more virtuous conduct would require that humans do not have a fixed expiration date.

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

19. August 2014 · Comments Off on Ultrastructural Signatures of Information-Theoretic Death · 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

17. August 2014 · Comments Off on Is Aging a Choice? · Categories: Health, Science

The idea that aging is a choice will strike many readers as preposterous and I will admit at the outset that such a position can ultimately not be maintained. But in a milder sense, it should be recognized that we can make decisions in life regarding diet and lifestyle that can mitigate or accelerate the aging process. This “wiggle room” may turn out to be of great importance for reaching a time when serious rejuvenation biotechnologies will become available.

According to biologist Michael R. Rose (see the interview in Cryonics magazine, September 2013) aging is not an immutable process of wear and tear that unfolds through iron logic without being sensitive to lifestyle and diet. Aging begins after the start of reproduction and the forces of natural selection decline with chronological age, eventually stopping at late age (which raises the possibility that aging stops).

Some things that we associate with aging are not inevitable physiological processes but choices or decisions to conform to expectations. For example, when people reach adulthood, and pursue a family and career, they often conform to a lifestyle that involves more time sitting at a desk or in cars, more time spent inside, less time socializing with friends, and are subject to increasing amounts of stress and sleep deprivation.

As the physiological consequences of such a lifestyle (obesity, higher blood pressure, declining free hormone levels) express themselves many people tell themselves such things are the inevitable effects of getting older. But alternative scenarios may be possible if we remain aware of our environment, lifestyle, and diet.

In the case of diet, the dominant opinion remains that a healthy diet can be identified regardless of age, sex, and population group. There is increasing evidence, however, that such a perspective leaves a lot to be desired and that too much reductionism in these matters is not a good thing. There are, however, a number of observations that can be made. Restriction of calories (or intermittent fasting or meal skipping) seems to trigger a beneficial stress response that improves health and perhaps even extends life. Similarly, adopting a diet that more closely mimics that of hunter gatherers in conjunction with giving up a sedentary lifestyle has been successful in improving the lives (and looks!) of many people, in particular in the case of obesity.

What makes it rather difficult to adopt such lifestyle changes is that we are almost continuously exposed to an environment that makes it rather difficult to effect such changes. Most of our food is highly processed, loaded with carbs and sugar, and served in portion sizes that always seem to increase. When we move from one location to another the emphasis is on minimizing energy expenditure and eliminating resistance. We work in dark and confined spaces during the day and are exposed to light until we go to sleep (or sometimes even during sleep!). When we come home we turn on the television or the computer to “socialize.” It should not surprise us that such an “unnatural” lifestyle translates into the classic signs of aging and functional deterioration.

There is a lot at stake here. As daunting as it may seem, the idea that aging is not a uniform “process” that swallows us up at a constant rate opens up the possibilities of positive change. Armed with the latest findings in evolutionary biology and medicine we can start pushing back, stabilize the situation as best as we can, and reach a time when more radical rejuvenation biotechnologies will become available. Start moving, start lifting, go camping, make new friends, eat organic and fermented foods, skip the occasional meal, and cut the sugar!

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

26. November 2013 · Comments Off on Interview with Aschwin de Wolf · 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.

You

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 on A Skeptic’s Guide to Cryonics · 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.

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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

05. October 2013 · Comments Off on Born too early? · Categories: Science, Society

A friend of mine in the life extension movement who is approaching age 65 once lamented that he might be part of the last generation that will not be able to take advantage of the rejuvenation biotechnologies that become available to the next generation. I wish I could believe him because it means that I may still be in time! Unfortunately, interest in anti-aging research and cryonics is rather low (to put it mildly), even among baby boomers who one might expect to be painfully aware of the aging process. It is rather disturbing to me that the aging process itself is not being identified as a source of misery, disease, separation, and oblivion. Then again, perhaps I am just too impatient and unable to see the larger picture.

The practical production of liquid nitrogen from liquefied air was first achieved by Carl von Linde in 1905, although liquid nitrogen only became widely available commercially after World War II. The idea of cryonics was introduced to the general public in the mid-1960s. Since liquid nitrogen (or liquid helium) is an essential requirement for human cryopreservation it is interesting to recognize that there was only a difference of roughly 20 years between cryonics being technically possible and the first efforts to practice cryonics. Is this an outrageously long delay? I doubt anyone would argue this.

Similarly, while the idea of rejuvenation has always appealed to humans (think about Countess Elizabeth Bathory), I doubt anyone can credibly claim that there has been a long delay between our recognition of biological senescence and the desire to see aging as a biotechnological challenge to overcome. While there is no massive global movement to fight aging yet, the desire to conquer aging is as old as the exposition of (secular) modern evolutionary biology
itself. Are we too impatient?

What is disappointing, however, is the widespread passive acceptance of aging and death by the majority of people. Thinking about this issue, it struck me that until recently our (educational) institutions and research programs were shaped by generations that were perhaps eminently amenable to accepting the inevitability of aging. Expecting these institutions and research programs to change their objectives overnight may not be completely realistic. It is undeniable, however, that the idea that aging is not something that is to be passively accepted but something that can be stopped and reversed is gradually winning more converts.

I suspect this observation will not provide much solace for my aging friend. But one of the nice features of cryonics is that it is possible to benefit from future rejuvenation technologies regardless of whether one happens to live to the time when such technologies become available. In fact, for some people that might be one of the most appealing reasons to make cryonics arrangements. Case in point, in my own situation I am not so much scared of death as I am fascinated by the idea of seeing the aging process reversed, not just for myself but for others, too. I cannot think of a greater human achievement than the introduction of effective, evidence-based, rejuvenation.

I am comfortable with the idea that I may not live to see rejuvenation biotechnologies becoming available before I am cryopreserved, provided I am able to take advantage of them later. Of course, I’d prefer to be there (without interruption!) when it happens. People may have different reasons to desire cryonics—we need to recognize this diversity of motives instead of just trying to “sell” the one reason that is important to us. Then perhaps, maybe, we can accelerate the identification of aging as a condition to be stopped.

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

04. October 2013 · Comments Off on What do we really know about fracturing? · 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 on Marketing cryonics · 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