Most science starts off at the fringe and slowly makes it way to the mainstream. Cryopreservation is commonly achieved in a laboratory setting, but for many years serious applications remained confined to science fiction. Is it time to change how we see cryonics?
The science of freezing things
Scientific research requires great storage, and huge amounts of material including cells are frozen every day to be used at the later date. If you follow the correct protocols, many forms of life can be re-awakened after their cryogenic sleep. DMSO, propylene glycol and glycerol help abolish problems like ice crystals which can rupture cells, and storage temperatures can drop to below -120 oC. At these levels biological reactions are essentially halted.
But can we retain memory?
Freezing batches of cells is one thing, but organs or even an organism is an entirely different story. There is hope however, and research has shown the model organism C. elegans retains its long term memory after storage in liquid nitrogen. We don’t yet understand how memory is encoded, but we might not have to in order to store the information anyway. More studies have found that in frozen rabbit brain tissue, neurons can survive and potentiate after thawing.
What about humans?
The holy grail of cryonics would obviously be human preservation (and successful re-awakening). We’re admittedly not there yet, but research is being increased on the subject. Organ storage techniques are being improved all the time, and we’ve already shown that rat limbs and sheep ovaries can withstand being frozen and thawed; they also remain functional afterwards.
We know that death occurs after irreversible damage to cells, but many hypothermia patients show little sign of brain damage even after being exposed to severe cold. This gives us hope that brain function could one day be restored if frozen intact. Strategies are being explored today to preserve and protect brain function in surgery by reducing the body’s temperature to less than 10 °C. Patients undergoing extreme surgery can also undergo induced hypothermia to protect them from damage and allow longer surgery time-frames. Their heart is then restarted by a defibrillator.
Where do we go from here?
All of this means that cryonics isn’t a fringe science; it’s proven and it’s viable. True, we’re not yet at a science fiction level, but the technology is far from impossible in theory. Perhaps it’s time we focus more resources into the field, and bring it into open-minded, mainstream discussion.
Read more at Technology Review