Remember in Star Wars when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite? That’s a form of cryonics, the practice of preserving people – or just their brain – then reanimating them at some future date when there’s a cure for whatever killed them. And it’s not just science fiction.
“It’s taking your whole body or brain and storing it at low temperatures with the idea that eventually you might be able to be revived and restored to health and youth,” says Catherine Baldwin, a scientist with advanced degrees in microbiology who studies cryonics: the study of freezing organisms with the goal of stopping tissues from decomposing, then reviving them in the future.
About 200 bodies worldwide have been preserved after death this way since 1967, by companies like Alcor and the Cryonics Institute. Why so few? Well, besides being kind of eerie, unproven scientifically, and not well publicized, it’s expensive.
We talked about the price tag, the process, and the popularity with Baldwin, who is general manager of Suspended Animation in Boynton Beach, Fla. Her company handles the first step of cryo-preservation: replacing bodily fluids with what’s essentially an “anti-freeze” solution so the tissues can be safely frozen without creating damaging ice crystals.
Watch the video below, and then read on for more…
There are a lot of variables when it comes to the price of cryonics. As Baldwin said in the video, “The fees can range from $30,000 total to about $200,000 total. It’s quite a range depending on where and how you receive care.”
Here’s how it breaks down…
This is the service offered by Baldwin’s company, Suspended Animation. A team of medical professionals is on hand when you’re declared legally dead. Their job is act quickly to prevent tissue degeneration after you’re declared legally dead.
“They replace all of your body fluids with an organ preservation solution and get you as cold as possible as quickly as possible without freezing you,” Baldwin says.
It’s important that you don’t freeze. Baldwin says, “If you flash froze human cells like a steak, ice would shred your cells from the inside, and then there’s nothing worth saving.” But keeping the body around zero degrees Fahrenheit (about your kitchen freezer’s temperature) protects cells from damage while the body is transported to a storage location for further preparation and long-term storage in much colder temperatures.
After this team is done, the body is shipped off to a facility by private jet, commercial airliner or, if you’re close enough, by car for the next step.
Cost: $30,000 to $60,000, depending on the method of conveyance used to transport your body. Some of those who have signed up for cryonics actually move closer to a storage facility to help defray transportation costs.
Once at the storage facility, a second team receives the body, and the first chemical perfusion is replaced with a different “cryo-protectant.” Basically, the tissues are flooded with an even more efficient human antifreeze, “a specialized solution that prevents ice formation when you’re below minus 160 degrees Celsius,” Baldwin says. That’s almost twice as cold as the coldest natural temperatures on Earth.
Cost: $10,000 to $15,000.
“The third phase is long-term storage, and who knows how long that will be,” Baldwin says. Once your cells are safe from frost, your body is laid on dry ice to drop its temperature further, then placed in a container that’s dunked head-first into liquid nitrogen, where it will remain until medical technology advances to the degree that your body (or brain) can be reanimated. How long that will be, of course, depends on how rapidly science advances, but Baldwin’s guess is that it will be at least 50 years and quite possibly longer.
Cost: Varies by provider. Some organizations charge annual fees of hundreds of dollars until you die. Others have flat “lifetime” fees.
While there are several cryogenic organizations worldwide, there are currently only three storage facilities in the U.S. Probably the best known is Alcor, located in Scottsdale, Ariz. Another, the Cryonics Institute, is northeast of Detroit in Clinton Township, Mich. A third is TransTime, located in San Leandro, Calif. All have been around since the 1970s.
For a more detailed breakdown of cryonics prices and policies, check out the Cryonics Institute’s comparison page. Baldwin calls CI “kind of the ‘budget’ model.” Their least expensive program is $28,000 up front, followed by $120 in yearly fees.
Some also save by skipping the deathbed preparation offered by Suspended Animation entirely. “Some people don’t believe they need my team’s services,” Baldwin says. “So they die in a hospital or hospice, and somebody hopefully packs them in ice and gets them cool, and a funeral director will eventually come and pick them up and ship them on ice to the Cryonics Institute. CI does a kind of perfusion and puts them in storage – it’s very no-frills.”
If that sounds kind of risky, there’s one other way to head off the high price of cryonics, literally. Rather than storing your entire body, you can opt to store just your head for a lower price. What happens when you wake up, though?
“Your body will have to be replaced in some form. It might not be the same form you have now, or it might be a replicate. Maybe silicon-based?” Baldwin speculates.
Among the many complications of cryogenics is the process of paying for it. Baldwin said it’s not uncommon for the beneficiaries of the estate of the preserved to dispute the will. In addition, if you’re ultimately reanimated, you might wake up broke. People declared legally dead have virtually no rights, so keeping money out of the hands of your heirs and set aside for your future use becomes problematic.
Who wants to live forever?
Since the practice began in the 1960s, roughly 200 people have signed up and paid for preservation. That’s not many, but Baldwin says, “A lot of people are not early adopters, they want to see proof. What cryonics lacks is a lot of publicized scientifically published proof that it works.”
While scientists have been able to recover entire animal organs with this process – a rabbit kidney was cryonically preserved and later successfully transplanted into a live rabbit – there’s been no full-body success stories yet. “We’ve never recovered a whole person, or even a whole animal from this,” Baldwin says. “We’re getting there but not yet.”
Another reason it may not be more popular is that few people have heard of it. “It’s not very sexy science,” Baldwin says.
It also sounds like science fiction. It probably doesn’t help that one of the early advocates of cryonics was legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. Plus, cryonics kind of sounds like time travel, another standard sci-fi trope.
“By preserving as many cells as possible, you can essentially create a kind of time travel for yourself,” Baldwin says. “The idea is at some point, technology will catch up to whatever took you away and be able to cure what killed you.”
Some people take this very seriously. “There are people who have their entire families cryo-preserved,” Baldwin says. “Pets, wives, mom, dad.”
Alcor, the single largest current provider of cryonics, maintains a list of its nearly 1,000 patients by date. Many names aren’t listed, including one of the company’s most famous residents: A-1949, also known as baseball great Ted Williams.
And although it was too early for him, Benjamin Franklin – known for saying that “only death and taxes are certain” – would have been an early adopter. He once wrote, “I wish it were possible to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant.”
Many scientists do believe it’s possible. Here’s a list of supporters [PDF]. And in just a few weeks, there’s a cryonics conference in Boynton Beach, Fla. [PDF]. (It’s May 20-22 and costs $250 to attend.)
But nobody claims it’s guaranteed to work. “It’s the longest shot you’ll ever take, and I think that’s part of a drawback and the appeal,” Baldwin says. “We can’t promise anything. We’re all pretty clear it’s a grand experiment.”
And although it sounds far-fetched now, cryonics experts like Baldwin point out that CPR was once a radical technique that brought back people once thought dead.
“The things we used to be unable to recover from, we now recover from every day. We have hand transplants and finger transplants and heart transplants and we’re like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” Baldwin says. “The notion of death, the line is moving all the time. I expect this kind of procedure, although maybe not what it looks like today, may someday be part of the continuum of [hospital] care.”