TECH KNOW: Pushing the envelope - Cryonics

TECH KNOW: Pushing the envelope - Cryonics - Over the ages, immortality has had a bad press. From Jonathan Swift's Struldbruggs - condemned to grow old and spend eternity as dribbling wrecks - to Christopher Lambert's sword-wielding Franco-Scottish time l

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Over the ages, immortality has had a bad press. From Jonathan Swift's Struldbruggs - condemned to grow old and spend eternity as dribbling wrecks - to Christopher Lambert's sword-wielding Franco-Scottish time lord in Highlander, negative role models of longevity dominate.

But gloomy examples from the past do not seem to deter supporters of cryonics, a growing band of 'life extension' pioneers whose eyes are fixed on the future. The cryonics faithful believe that, after their bodies have been frozen at or very shortly after death and kept on ice, one day in the distant future they will be defrosted, cured of whatever ailed them and brought back to life, thanks to the inexorable march of medical technology.

THE CHALLENGE: The bodies of dignitaries who died in far-flung regions have traditionally been preserved for the journey home - Lord Nelson was pickled in a barrel of brandy following his death at Trafalgar in 1805.

But it's no surprise that the first modern Cryonaut was an American. Since passing away in 1967, psychology professor James Bedford has been chilling out in a titanium flask of liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation facility in Arizona. A thousand or so people have since signed up for the treatment, mostly from the US (no Brits so far). Only about 100 of them are actually in cryosuspension; unsubstantiated rumours say these include Walt Disney, Dr Timothy Leary and General Omar Bradley, but so far the biggest name to go public post mortem is American baseball legend Ted Williams, frozen last July.

THE SOLUTION: Sub-zero temperatures can indeed keep the ravages of time at bay, but preserving whole bodies is more involved than flash-freezing a fish finger. After gradual chilling in an ice bath and replacement of the blood with preserving solution, the corpse is cooled to minus 79 degrees centigrade with dry ice, then over a period of days to a nippy minus 196 degrees in liquid nitrogen-filled flasks. At this temperature, a body is very brittle and the slightest knock could shatter dreams of a second life. Cryonauts are stored head down to minimise the risk of damage to the frozen brain.

None of this comes cheap - it costs about dollars 125,000 to freeze a whole body and store it. Impecunious but highly optimistic would-be cryonauts can have just their heads preserved for about half that sum, but doing so requires that a suitable donor body be found and attached before any potential resurrection can take place. Even if the enormous medical challenges of finding a cure for death can be overcome, experts doubt that the human memory can survive cryosuspension. Even Dr Frankenstein would shudder at such a job.

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