Can cryonics save his brain after death?
Lovable gaffe machine Larry King may no longer have a TV talk show, but he knows the final cancellation is yet to come and wants to hedge his bets by having his head frozen in liquid nitrogen. “I want to be frozen on the hope that they’ll find whatever I died of and bring me back,” King recently announced. “My biggest fear is death, because I don’t think I’m going anywhere.” What he’s referring to by “frozen” is, of course, cryonics, a weird industry that lies somewhere on the border between legitimate medical science and crackpot land. Considered a kind of Hail Mary pass in the face of death, it employs cryopreservation to safely store biological tissue by quickly freezing it to temperatures below -320°F. This is done routinely to preserve human embryos, which can be stored in a frozen state for years and still be thawed and used to produce healthy children. Anything more complex than a few cells generally can’t be successfully rewarmed due to complications from the freezing process and the toxic chemicals used, but under stable conditions, tissue at this temperature undergoes little biological activity and can theoretically remain perfectly preserved for many centuries. The hope with cryonics is that in the future, our super-advanced medical technology will allow a frozen individual to be thawed, revived, and cured of whatever killed him or her in the first place, personality and memory intact. Larry King isn’t the only one who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and many people find cryonics an appealing last resort, albeit an incredible long shot. The problem is that, like the dream of downloading one’s brain to a computer, the technical obstacles to success are so large that no one has the slightest idea how it might actually be accomplished. Obviously, no one knows what the distant future holds, but most medical professionals, including cryobiologists who do actual research in this field, think cryonics is a pointless waste of time and money.
Many people find cryonics an appealing last resort, albeit an incredible long shot.
The notion of freezing the recently deceased for later resuscitation was first proposed in 1962, and the first human body was cryopreserved a few years later. Currently, only about 200 people have undergone the procedure, with many opting for financial reasons to preserve only their head, as it’s more cost-effective to keep smaller objects in deep-deep-freeze. On its surface, the idea isn’t all that crazy. Our modern scientific view of death doesn’t recognize a single moment in time when one passes from being alive to being dead. It’s all about information, and the structures in the brain that store that information. There may be practical and technological reasons why a dying person can’t be revived after his or her heart and brain activity have ceased, but it is thought that the structures in the brain that encode everything that makes up a given person can remain intact at room temperature for several hours after clinical death. When that neural information finally decays, it’s referred to as “information theoretic death,” and it’s at that point that the person is really dead, as in beyond saving with any technology, no matter how advanced. In this context, it is conceivable that physically preserving a person immediately after clinical death may indeed preserve their memories and personality until medical science can fix whatever it is that originally killed them. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details.