How cryonics plans to help you live longer

They say you can't live forever, but some people are hoping at the very least to extend their lives.

Thousands of people around the world are investing a lot of money to escape death

Cryonics — which doesn't actually look like this — is here, but can it really keep us from dying? (deepspacedave/Shutterstock)

It may sound like science fiction, but freezing yourself so you can live longer is a real thing.

On Friday, a 14-year-old British girl with cancer was granted the right to have her body frozen so that one day, when a cure is found, she can be revived and live out the rest of her life.

While the process if often referred to as cryogenics, it's actually cryonics. Cyrogenics is used to freeze something — say, a body — cryonics stores a body at very low temperatures.

That difference is key. Human cells that are frozen will rupture, making any chance of coming back from the dead in better shape than you were before you died impossible.

In order to be cryonically preserved, speed is of the essence. Once a person dies, it's important that the blood continues to circulate until the process can begin.

The Cryonics Institute — where the teenage girl will be held after she dies — explains the process in detail. 

The Cryonics Institute boasts more than 1,300 members. (Cryonics Institute)

Once a person dies, they need to be cooled immediately. Then an anticoagulant (to stop blood clotting) should be injected into the person. During transport, the body must be pumped, much like someone giving CPR compressions.

When the body arrives at the facility, blood is washed out and cryoprotectants are added, replacing water contained in the body. These prevent the water in the body from forming ice crystals. This process is called vitrification and slows molecular movement to practical standstill. 

After that, the body is cooled down even more to about -120 C. Then the body is left to cool down to liquid nitrogen temperature, around -190 C.

Cryostats, used to hold Cryonics Institute patients in Scottsdale, Arizona. The tanks are filled with liquid nitrogen at -196 C. (Cryonics Institute)

The reality

The first person to be cryonically preserved was James Hiram Bedford, who died of cancer in 1967. His body is now at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz. This is the same company where famed baseball player Ted Williams is said to be frozen. But in his case, he was decapitated. Both head and body are said to by cryonically preserved.

So while the freezing part is a real thing, being brought back is still in the realm of science fiction.

Science has yet to figure out a way to reanimate a person. The solution in the body is toxic and would have to be flushed out entirely to prevent, well, dying again. 

There's also concern about the brain, in particular if it is able to survive the process at all. 

However, in February scientists out of California successfully cryonically preserved the brain of a rabbit and then thawed it. 

"​Every neuron and synapse looks beautifully preserved across the entire brain," said Dr. Kenneth Hayworth, president of BPF, in a statement released by the company.

While that might give some hope, it's certainly no guarantee. And if you're investing about $30,000, you might want better odds.


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.