‘We don’t yet have the know-how to properly maintain a corpse brain’: Why cryonics is a non-starter in our quest for immortality

‘We don’t yet have the know-how to properly maintain a corpse brain’: Why cryonics is a non-starter in our quest for immortality

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It’s a scene plucked from science fiction: On their deathbed, a particular person is totally frozen and then stashed away, so that they can be revived in the future. Nevertheless may it be imaginable?  In this excerpt from “Why We Die: The Unique Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality,” (Harper Collins, 2024) Nobel Prize-winning biologist Venki Ramakrishnan examines the decades-long quest for cryonic preservation — in which individuals may be frozen at the point of death and defrosted in the future — and the pitfalls of an industry borne out of the idea.

Egyptians mummified their pharaohs so that they may arise corporeally at some point in the future for their journey in the afterworld. Absolutely now, a few millennia after the pharaohs and with more than a century of fashionable biology behind us, we may not achieve anything even remotely so superstitious. Nevertheless in fact, there is a fashionable equivalent. 

Biologists have long wanted to be able to freeze specimens so that they can store and exhaust them later. This is not so straightforward because all living things are level-headed largely of water. When this water freezes into ice and expands, it has the nasty habit of bursting begin cells and tissues. This is partly why while you freeze original strawberries and thaw them, you wind up with goopy, unappetizing mush.

An total area of biology, cryopreservation, research how to freeze samples so that they are collected viable when thawed later. It has developed invaluable strategies, such as how to store stem cells and other important samples in liquid nitrogen. It has found out how to safely freeze semen from sperm donors and human embryos for in vitro fertilization treatment down the road. 

Animal embryos are routinely frozen to sustain explicit strains, and biologists’ favorite worms can be frozen as larvae and revived. For many varieties of cells and tissues, cryopreservation works. It is normally carried out by using additives such as glycerol, which allow cooling to very low temperatures with out letting the water flip into ice — effectively treasure adding an antifreeze to the sample. In this case, the water forms a glass-treasure state rather than ice, and the course of ought to be called vitrification rather than freezing (the note vitreous derives from the Latin root for glass), but even scientists casually refer to it as freezing and the specimens as frozen. 

Enter cryonics, in which total folks are frozen immediately after death with the idea of defrosting them later when a cure for whatever ailed them has been discovered. The idea has been around a long time, but it certainly gained traction thru the work of Robert Ettinger, a college physics and math teacher from Michigan who also wrote science fiction. Ettinger had a vision of future scientists reviving these frozen bodies and not only curing whatever had ailed them but also making them young again. 

In 1976 he based the Cryonics Institute near Detroit and persuaded more than 100 folks to pay $28,000 each to have their bodies preserved in liquid nitrogen in large containers. One in all the first folks to be frozen was his absorb mother, Rhea, who died in 1977. His two other halves are also stored there — it is not clear exactly how happy they had been to be stored next to each other or their mother-in-law for years or decades to reach. 

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The Alcor Lifestyles Extension Foundation in Arizona has over 200 bodies and heads preserved in the hope of reviving them in the future.  (Image credit ranking: Jeff Topping/Getty Images)

Continuing this tradition of family closeness, when Ettinger died in 2011 at age 92, he joined them. Today there are several such cryonics facilities. Another popular one, Alcor Lifestyles Extension Foundation, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, charges about $200,000 for total-physique storage. How achieve these facilities work? Essentially, as quickly as a particular person dies, the blood is drained and replaced with an antifreeze, and the physique is then stored in liquid nitrogen. Theoretically, indefinitely. 

Then there are the transhumanists who want to transcend our bodies totally. Nevertheless they don’t want humanity as we understand it to ruin before we have found out a way to sustain our minds and consciousnesses indefinitely in some other form. In their contemplate, intelligence and reason may be irregular to human beings in the universe (or at least they examine no proof for extraterrestrial intelligence). 

Related: Can minds persist when they are minimize off from the world?

To them, it is of cosmic importance to sustain our consciousnesses and minds and spread them for the duration of the universe. After all, what is the point of the universe if there is no intelligence to appreciate it? These transhumanists are train material to have only their brains frozen. This takes up less space and prices less. Furthermore, it may be faster to infuse the magic antifreeze instantly into the brain after death, increasing the odds of profitable preservation. 

The brain is the seat of reminiscences, consciousness, and reasoning, and that is their sole situation. At some point in the future, when the know-how is ripe, the information in the brain will simply be downloaded to a computer or some similar entity. That entity will bear the particular person’s consciousness and reminiscences and will resume “lifestyles.” It may not be small by human issues such as the wants for meals, water, oxygen, and a narrow range of temperature. We can have transcended our bodies, with the possibility of traveling anywhere in the universe. 

Elon Musk is identified for his transhumanist efforts, with latest Neuralink tasks aiming to merge the human brain with computer systems. (Image credit ranking: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Now not surprisingly, transhumanists are generally ardent about space travel, viewing it as our only chance to escape destruction on Earth. One such proponent is business magnate and investor Elon Musk, said to be the wealthiest particular person in the world, depending on the year, who is effectively identified for his want to “die on Mars, lawful not on impact.” Presumably one in every of his first goals upon reaching the pink planet shall be to acquire a cryonics facility. 

The bad information is that there is not a shred of credible proof that human cryogenics will ever work. The potential problems are myriad. By the time a technician can infuse the physique, minutes or even hours may have elapsed since the 2nd of death — even supposing the “consumer” moved lawful next to a facility in preparation. 

During that time, each cell in the deceased particular person’s physique is undergoing dramatic biochemical changes due to the lack of oxygen and nutrients, so that the state of a cryogenically frozen physique is not the state of a dwell human being. No matter, say cryo advocates: we simply must sustain the physical building of the brain. As long as it is preserved sufficient that we can examine the connections between all the billions of brain cells, we can be able to reconstruct the particular person’s total brain. 

Mapping all the neurons in a brain is an emerging science called connectomics. Although it has made large advances, researchers are collected ironing out the kinks on flies and other tiny organisms. And we don’t yet have the know-how to properly maintain a corpse brain while we wait for connectomics to catch up. 

“Why We Die: The Unique Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality” by Venki Ramakrishnan.  (Image credit ranking: HarperCollins Publishers)

Most interesting just lately, after many years, has it been imaginable to sustain a mouse brain, and that requires infusing it with the embalming fluid while the mouse’s heart is collected beating — a course of that kills the mouse. Now not one in every of these cryonics companies has produced any proof that its procedures sustain the human brain in a way that would allow future scientists to obtain a full map of its neuronal connections. 

Even supposing we may create such a map, it may not be nearly sufficient to simulate a brain. The idea of each neuron as a mere transistor in a computer circuit is hopelessly naive. Worthy of this book has emphasized the complexity of cells. 

Each cell in the brain has a constantly changing program being executed inside it, one that involves thousands of genes and proteins, and its relationship with other cells is ever shifting. Mapping the connections in the brain may be a major step forward in our understanding, but even that may be a static snapshot. It would not allow us to reconstruct the actual state of the frozen brain, let alone predict the way it may “think” from that point on. It may be treasure trying to deduce all of the various aspects of a country and its folks, and predict its future trend, from a detailed road map. 

I spoke to Albert Cardona, a colleague of mine at the MRC (Medical Research Council) Laboratory of Molecular Biology who is a leading knowledgeable on the connectomics of the fly brain. Albert stresses that, in addition to the practical difficulties, the brain’s architecture and its very nature are shaped by its relationship to the leisure of the physique. 

Related: Low longevity: The secret to living longer may be hiding with nuns… and jellyfish

Our brain evolved along with the leisure of our physique, and is constantly receiving and acting upon sensory inputs from the physique. It is also not stable: fresh connections are added every day and pruned at evening when we sleep. There are each daily and seasonal rhythms involving dispute and death of neurons and this constant remodeling of the brain is poorly understood. 

Venki Ramakrishnan is one in every of the winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and former President of the Royal Society.  (Image credit ranking: Kate Joyce and Sante Fe Institute)

Furthermore, a brain with out a physique may be a very various thing altogether. The brain is not pushed totally by electrical impulses that travel thru connections between neurons. It responds also to chemicals each within the brain and emanating from the leisure of the physique. Its motivation is pushed very powerful by hormones, which originate in the organs, and include basic wants such as hunger but also intrinsic wishes. The pleasures our brains fetch are largely of the flesh. A appropriate meal. Climbing a mountain. Exercise. Intercourse. Furthermore, if we wait till we age and die, we may effectively be pickling an venerable, decrepit brain, not the finely tuned machine of a 25-year-venerable. What may be the point of preserving that brain?

Transhumanists argue that these problems can be solved with data that mankind will acquire in the future. Nevertheless they are basing their beliefs on the assumption that the brain is purely a computer, lawful various and more complex than our silicon-based machines. Of course, the brain is a computational organ, but the biological state of its neurons are as important as the connections between them in disclose to reconstruct its state at any given time. 

In any case, there is no proof that freezing either the physique or the brain and restoring it to a living state is remotely cessation to viable. Even supposing I had been one in every of the customers who was sold on cryonics, I’d fear about the longevity of these facilities, and even the societies and countries in which they exist. America, after all, is only about 250 years venerable. 

Excerpted from the book WHY WE DIE: The Unique Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality by Venki Ramakrishnan. Copyright © 2024 by Venki Ramakrishnan. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Venki Ramakrishnan shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for uncovering the building of the ribosome. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Venki runs his research community at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. From 2015 to 2020, he served as president of the Royal Society, one in every of the world’s oldest scientific organizations. He is the author of the frank scientific memoir “Gene Machine.”

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