Saturday, March 24, 2007

What is Cryonics ?

Photo cortesy of Alcor Life Extension Foundation

  • What is Cryonics?

Cryonics is the speculative practice of using cold to preserve the life of a person who can no longer be supported by ordinary medicine. The goal is to carry the person forward through time, for however many decades or centuries might be necessary, until the preservation process can be reversed, and the person restored to full health.

While cryonics sounds like science fiction, there is a basis for it in real science. The complete scientific story of cryonics is seldom told in media reports, leaving cryonics widely misunderstood.

Cryonics is justified by three facts that are not well known:

1) Life can be stopped and restarted if its basic structure is preserved.

2) Vitrification (not freezing) can preserve biological structure very well.

3) Methods for repairing structure at the molecular level can now be foreseen.

Further discussion and references concerning post-mortem brain changes are available within this article, and also this one. These data suggest that the early stages of what we consider death today may actually be a treatable injury. This is not because death is reversible, but because what we think of as death today might not really be death at all. Rather than spontaneous return of function, death may ultimately be determined by information theoretic criteria.

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 Religion 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.

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."

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