Cryonics: The Secret to Immortality?

We may not have the cure for mortality now…but transhumanists believe one day we will. And their cryogenically frozen brains will be ready.

After his heart stops beating, Keegan Macintosh is not going to die. When his legal death occurs, the 32-year-old will be cryopreserved, his life suspended until a future day, a future place, and a time when it’s possible to reanimate bodies and brains.

He’s not in danger of this happening any time soon, but Macintosh wants to be prepared. “I don’t plan on needing cryonics for a long time, but I enjoy my life. I hope it’ll be a long one, potentially a much longer one in a future society,” says Macintosh, a healthy, fit public speaking and drama instructor with an interest in life extension, from nutrition to the philosophy of transhumanism, which holds the view that we’re evolving far too slowly to solve the world’s problems—disease, climate change, ignorance, war, you name it. “We’re not perfect, and we never will be,” says Macintosh. “But we can overcome our built-in frailties with technologies”—like molecular nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and cryonics. “The prospect that cryonics will work is only slightly less terrifying than the prospect that it won’t work,” he admits. “I don’t cherish the idea of waking up to a world without my friends and family.” So far, Macintosh has been unable to convince his husband to sign up too—ditto for the family dog.

“Luckily, I know a half dozen other Vancouver cryonicists, like Carrie,” he says, raising his coffee mug to Carrie Wong, a 32-year-old geologist working in oil and mining satellite mapping. Wong met Macintosh in 2012, while they were students at UBC. “Cryonics is very comforting to me,” says Wong; she and her husband signed up in 2013. “It means I don’t have to think about what happens after I die, all that anxiety about the afterlife. I feel like this is the best shot I have.”

Approximately 2,500 people around the world have bet on cryonics as their chance at an afterlife, signing up for one of two cryopreservation facilities: the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona or the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. Two hundred and ninety people are currently cryopreserved in these facilities, including two Canadians and one British Columbian, each held in a container resembling a human-sized Thermos.

The journey to that giant Thermos is a complicated one that ideally should begin within minutes of legal death to provide the least cellular damage from oxygen and blood deprivation, particularly to the brain. Cryobanks are duty-bound to cryopreserve all clients, no matter the condition on arrival, but for the best chance of a successful future thaw, they recommend that the elderly or terminal move to nearby hospices prior to death so that they can provide an immediate emergency response. If that’s not possible, or if death is accidental, it’s optimal to have a local ER team standing by. For U.S. cryonicists there’s a company called Suspended Animation, providing ambulatory services in Florida and California. Elsewhere, cryonicists have created volunteer teams, including a Toronto group waiting to spring into action for approximately 15 Torontonians. In Vancouver, Macintosh and Wong founded the Lifespan Society to ostensibly provide standby services for 25 B.C.-based cryonicists, including their sort of surrogate grandfather, 78-year-old West Vancouverite Charles Grodzicki, whose chosen resting place is the Cryonics Institute, 3,000 kilometres away.

“If we can come back, were we really dead in the first place?” —Keegan Macintosh, Cryonicist

“Charles is healthy, but he’s our oldest member, and we want to give him the best shot,” says Wong. Optimal ER starts immediately, with CPR and the restoration of breathing and blood circulation, ideally by heart-lung resuscitator, a.k.a. a “thumper.” Then, anticoagulants are administered by IV to prevent blood clotting, so that when the cryobank begins the process of vitrification—replacing blood with “cryoprotectant” chemicals that inhibit ice formation—the potential for freezer burn is minimized. (Think antifreeze and airtight Tupperware.)

Lifespan members—about a dozen B.C.ers, half Vancouver-based—are in the process of acquiring medical supplies, training and a list of local funeral directors willing to put bodies on ice for speedy transport to Michigan and Arizona. The cryobanks function as non-profits, much like organ donation and cadaver research organizations, their clients paying annual membership fees combined with either a prepayment or the signing over of life insurance policies, the option that both Wong and Macintosh chose.

Macintosh and Wong have opted for brain-only vitrification, which, at $90,000 (U.S.), is a cheaper alternative to the $200,000 (U.S.) sticker price for the whole body. Once they reach Alcor, only their heads will be vitrified and placed in the liquid nitrogen-filledThermos, gradually cooling to -196°C. The goal, according to Alcor, is to “regrow” a new body using future regeneration techniques. “It’s all in here,” says Macintosh, tapping his temple. “My body? They can upgrade it.”

Sound like science fiction? Today, it still is. We can vitrify and store eggs and embryos and thaw them successfully when they’re needed, but not human organs, much less entire human bodies and brains. Yet while religions that promise an afterlife are rarely scrutinized for scientific validity, critics have called cryonicists “corpsicles” and accused cryobanks of quackery, though they guarantee nothing more than cold storage and revival only if big medical breakthroughs happen in the future, particularly in molecular nanotechnology. They point to recent breakthroughs, such as the thawing of a rabbit kidney and the structural preservation of a rabbit brain. And the strides in mainstream medicine, from the recent introduction of cold comas to prevent brain trauma to basic CPR techniques introduced in the ’60s, that are redefining the moment of death.

“To me, cryonics makes more sense than the current definition of death,” says Macintosh. “It’s actually an ultra-conservative form of medicine—don’t give up until you are very sure that nothing will be possible ever. We don’t think about it as bringing back a ‘dead person.’ If we can come back, were we really dead in the first place? Cryonics isn’t something socialized health care can afford to do now. But it’s my choice. Not everyone can be an early adopter.”

“We have a saying in our circle—last one in, first one out,” says Wong. “We’ll be the least well preserved and probably the last to be brought back.”

Check back for more from VanMag‘s 25 Ways to Live Forever package (our March 2017 cover story!) to learn about the myriad ways—blood transfusions, juice cleanses, IV drips—Vancouverites chase the dream of eternal youth.