Myths about Cryonics

Cryonics has attracted a huge amount of attention since the concept was first promoted in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, much of the news coverage has been based on misconceptions and statements from “authorities” who lack basic information about the field. This page corrects some of the most widespread inaccuracies about cryonics as practiced by Alcor.

By definition, fraud involves deception for financial gain. This myth fails on both counts.

First, cryonics is not based on deception. To the contrary, it is both scientifically credible (see the Scientists’ Open Letter on Cryonics) and supported by the extant scientific literature (see PubMed for a list of some published journal articles on cryonics). There are no known credible technical arguments that lead one to conclude that cryonics, carried out under good conditions today, would not work.

Second, cryonicists are not motivated by financial gain. The history of cryonics is full of individuals who made great sacrifices for the benefit of cryonics, and (so far) bereft of people enriched by it. Alcor has no company owners to profit from cryonics, salaries are modest, and the Board of Directors serves without pay. Cryonics is known for consuming the time and resources of its supporters rather than enriching them.

The reality is that Alcor is run by people who think cryonics can save lives and who want cryonics available for themselves, their friends, their loved ones, and the world in general.

The current technology favored by Alcor is vitrification, not freezing. Vitrification is an ice-free process in which more than 60% of the water inside cells is replaced with protective chemicals. This completely prevents freezing during deep cooling. Instead of freezing, molecules just move slower and slower until all chemistry stops at the glass transition temperature (approximately -124°C). Unlike freezing, there is no ice formation or ice damage in vitrified tissue. Blood vessels have been reversibly vitrified, and a whole kidney has been recovered and successfully transplanted with long-term survival after vitrification at a temperature of -135°C.

In the image below, at left is a rabbit kidney suspended in a transparent solution of vitrification chemicals, but without vitrification solution inside it, is frozen solid at a temperature of -140°C. At right is another kidney with vitrification solution inside it is preserved without freezing at the same temperature of -140°C. This work was originally reported in Cryobiology 21, 407-426 (1984).

frozen and vitrified kidney

In 2001, Alcor drew on published advances in the field of organ vitrification to implement a protocol for vitrifying the human brain. This procedure is not yet reversible because of other damage (not caused by ice) including biochemical effects of the vitrification solution — but it eliminates ice damage and the preservation of fine structure is excellent.

The less advanced methods used by Alcor before 2001 still suppressed most freezing damage. Comparisons of cryonics to frozen vegetables and other ridiculous analogies therefore never had merit, even before the advent of vitrification.

The purpose of cryonics is to save the lives of living people, not inter the bodies of dead people. Death is a neurological process that begins after the heart stops. A stopped heart only causes death if nothing is done when the heart stops. Cryonics proposes to do something. In the words of a mainstream critical care expert writing for the American College of Surgeons, “In this era of critical care, death is more a process than an event…. A prognosis of death…cannot serve as a diagnosis.”

Alcor uses life support equipment to restore blood circulation to maintain brain viability after the heart stops, ideally within minutes. This means that every cell and tissue of a cryonics patient can be just as alive at the beginning of cryonics procedures as any other medical patient. Care of a terminally-ill patient can legally be transferred to Alcor as soon as the heart stops beating. Legal death declared at that moment is simply a certification that there’s nothing more contemporary medicine can do for a dying patient.

Dying is a process, not an event. The purpose of cryonics is to intercept and stop this dying process within the window of time that it may be reversible in the future. The first few minutes of clinical death are certainly reversible, even today. There are good reasons to believe that this window will extend further in the future. That is why cryonics is sometimes implemented even long after the heart stops. Cryonics is not a belief that the dead can be revived. Cryonics is a belief that no one is really dead until the information content of the brain is lost, and that low temperatures can prevent this loss.

The cryopreservation phase of cryonics will not be reversible for a very long time. But this still does not mean cryonics patients are dead. Life can be stopped and restarted under the right conditions, and life is often mistaken for death when resuscitation methods are not sufficiently advanced. If cryonics patients are ever successfully recovered, they will not have been dead by definition. They will have been unconscious, not dead. Saying cryonics cannot work because cryonics patients are dead is a circular argument. The statement assumes the conclusion it claims to prove!

Most experts in any single field will say that they know of no evidence that cryonics can work. That’s because cryonics is an interdisciplinary field based on three facts from diverse unrelated sciences. Without all these facts, cryonics seems ridiculous. Unfortunately that makes the number of experts qualified to comment on cryonics very small. For example, very few scientists even know what vitrification is. Fewer still know that vitrification can preserve cell structure of whole organs or whole brains. Even though this use of vitrification has been published, it is so uncommon outside of cryonics that only a handful of cryobiologists know it is possible.

The situation is comparable to the development of space travel before World War II. At that time, “aeronautical experts” were adamant that space travel was impossible. Only Robert Goddard and a few German rocket scientists knew that multi-stage rockets could escape the earth. As is often the case, the experts best qualified to comment on a new field are the experts working in that field. No properly qualified expert has ever said cryonics can’t work. The problem is finding experts qualified to comment on cryonics.

More than 60 scientists and ethicists have signed a Scientists’ Open Letter endorsing the scientific basis of cryonics. Alcor also has reputable scientists and physicians within its membership and medical and scientific advisory boards, including scientists who have testified before the U.S. Congress on matters unrelated to cryonics, and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In court testimony, prominent scientists have also provided Alcor with scientist declarations in support of cryonics.

Most cryobiologists (scientists specializing in low temperature biology) do not publicly support cryonics. This is in part because sensational publicity surrounding cryonics tends to cause mainstream accomplishments of cryobiology in reproductive biology, organ preservation, and cancer treatment to be unfairly overlooked. Conversely, most cryobiologists unfairly overlook the data and arguments that have been put forth in favor of cryonics. The history of the politicization of cryonics among cryobiologists is documented in the article: Cold War: The Conflict Between Cryonicists and Cryobiologists.

Alcor has no specific interest in preserving heads. Alcor’s interest is preserving people. In the entire human body, there is one organ that is absolutely essential to personhood: the brain. Injuries outside the brain are wounds to be healed. Injuries to the brain are injuries to who we are.

Alcor’s neuropreservation option therefore seeks to preserve the brain with the highest possible fidelity. By directing preservation efforts toward the brain, it is possible to cryopreserve a brain with better quality than is possible if an entire body is cryopreserved. It is expected that the ability to regrow a new body around a repaired brain will be part of the capabilities of future medicine. However, removing a brain today from its protective enclosure (the skull) would cause unnecessary damage. Alcor therefore leaves the brain protected within the head during preservation and storage. While neuropreservation may seem strange, it is scientifically the best way known to preserve a human life indefinitely. Alcor preserves people, not “heads.”

The goal of cryonics is to overcome serious illness by preserving and protecting life. Cryonics is therefore consistent with pro-life principles of both medicine and religion. Hypothermia victims have been revived after more than an hour without breathing, heartbeat, or brain activity. Deep cooling is sometimes used to “turn off” patients for long periods during neurosurgery when the heart must be stopped. Human embryos are routinely cryopreserved and revived. If cryonics works, it will work because it is fundamentally the same as these other forms of “suspended animation” that are already known in medicine. Patients in these states are understood to be in deep coma, not death.

Cryonics patients are theologically equivalent to unconscious patients in a hospital with an uncertain prognosis. Moving essays affirming the morality and worth of cryonics have been written from both Catholic and Protestant perspectives. Members of diverse Christian denominations, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have joined Alcor, in addition to people of other faiths. For further information, please read Christianity and Cryonics and other articles in the Religious Basis of Cryonics section of the Alcor Library. Alcor welcomes written contributions from all faiths attesting to the life-affirming nature of cryonics.

Most of Alcor’s membership is middle class, and funds cryonics by life insurance. Cryonics is within reach of any healthy young person in the industrialized world who plans for it. For a young person, the lifetime cost of cryonics is no greater than that of smoking, cable TV, or regular eating out.

If a strong will to live is no more than an expression of cowardice, then why treat any serious illness? Interestingly, cryonics founders Robert Ettinger and Jerry Leaf are both veterans of military combat who have demonstrated far more courage than the average idle critic of cryonics. A rational desire to continue living is not the same as an irrational fear of death. In the words of biologist Peter Medawar, “…there is no more deep-seated biological instinct than that which expresses itself as a firm grasp upon life, there is more dignity, as there is more humanity, in fighting for life than in a passive abdication from our most hardly won and most deeply prized possession.”