Is Cryonics Feasible?

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Cryonics is defined by its proponents as "the freezing of humans as shortly as possible after death with the hope of eventual return to life." Proponents claim that it is possible to preserve "with reasonable fidelity" the basic biologic components of the brain and that future technology will be able to repair brain damage caused by "imperfect preservation, premortal disease, and postmortem changes." [1] In 2005 the cost for whole-body freezing and permanent maintenance ranged from about $28,000 to $150,000. “Brain only” suspension, which is less expensive, is also available. The Cryonics Institute states:

As soon as possible after legal death, a member patient is prepared and cooled to a temperature where physical decay essentially stops, and is then maintained indefinitely in cryostasis. When and if future medical technology allows, our member patients will be healed and revived, and awaken to extended life in youthful good health.

Bacterial decay may stop, but that is not enough to make recovery possible. As noted by Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine:

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 [2].

National Council Against Health Fraud president William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., calls cryonics "quackery's last shot at you." In an interview, he said:

Cryonic technology has not been demonstrated to work in laboratory animals. Even if the rest of a person's body could be revived after hundreds of years, the brain could not. Brain cells deteriorate within minutes after death, and any still viable when the body is frozen would be burst by the freezing process. Cryonics might be a suitable subject for scientific research, but marketing an unproven method to the public is quackery [3].

References

  1. The cryobiological case for cryonics. Undated paper distributed in 1989 by Alcor Life Extension Corporation, Riverside, Calif.
  2. Shermer M. Nano nonsense and cryonics. Scientific American, Sept 2001.
  3. Jarvis WT. Quotation in Butler K. A Consumer's Guide to "Alternative" Medicine. Amherst, N.Y., 1992, Prometheus Books.

This article was revised on September 2, 2005.