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 microbiologist. Baldwin studies cryonics, or the freezing of organisms with the goal of stopping tissues from decomposing, then reviving them in the future.
A few hundred 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 creepy, scientifically unproven (so far), and not well publicized, it’s expensive.
We talked about the price tag, the process, and the popularity with Baldwin, who is the CEO of Suspended Animation in Boynton Beach, Florida. Her company handles the first step of cryopreservation: replacing bodily fluids with what’s essentially an antifreeze solution so the tissues can be safely frozen without creating damaging ice crystals.
There are a lot of variables when it comes to the price of cryonics.
“The fees can range from $30,000 total to about $200,000 total,” says Baldwin. “It’s quite a range depending on where and how you receive care.”
Here’s how it breaks down:
A team of medical professionals is on hand when you’re declared dead. Their job is to act quickly to prevent tissue degeneration.
“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.
“If you flash froze human cells like a steak, ice would shred your cells from the inside, and then there’s nothing worth saving,” Baldwin says.
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 “cryoprotectant.” 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 headfirst 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 United States. Probably the best known is Alcor, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Another, the Cryonics Institute, is northeast of Detroit in Clinton Township, Michigan. A third is TransTime, in San Leandro, California. All have been around since the 1970s.
Cryonics Institute may have the lowest cost option. Its least expensive program is $28,000.
Some also save by skipping the deathbed preparation.
“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. 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, only a few hundred 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 advocates of the concept 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 cryopreserved,” Baldwin says. “Pets, wives, mom, dad.”
Alcor, the single largest current provider of cryonics, maintains a list of its patients by date, although many names aren’t listed. Among the residents: A-1949, also known as baseball great Ted Williams.
And although it was too early for him, Benjamin Franklin might 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.”
Some scientists do believe it’s possible, and some were willing to go public with their support by signing onto this list.
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.”
If you had the chance, and money was no object, would you pursue cryogenics? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.