How can you freeze the brain

Dead with hope for a comeback: Why people get frozen

When starting civilian service, accident paramedics show the newcomers to the first aid course one thing: As long as the head is still on, you will not have to determine the death of a person! Only doctors are allowed to do that. That makes sense because being dead is not that easy to define. The last heartbeat, brain death, the onset of rigor mortis? In natural death, the process of dying is much more of a transition than a flick of a switch. In addition, it is more an active than a passive process, as the Innsbruck neuroscientist Wilhelm Eisner explains.

People who would have been pronounced dead a few centuries ago can now be reanimated. People believed dead can live on through a variety of treatment methods, organs from the 3D printer or donor organs. The determination of death is shifting due to medical advances - but of course there are legal definitions.

But the advancement of science fuels the belief of the so-called cryonics. Some of them are seriously ill, others are very much alive. Some suffer from a brain tumor, others just look forward to the future. They are all united by the belief in a second chance - a life after the first death. In the future, they believe, medical professionals could virtually resurrect their bodies and brains. For this hope they allow themselves to be "frozen" after their death.

Chance for the future

"It's an opportunity with no real disadvantages," says 28-year-old American Joel about the STANDARD. Joel is a member of the largest and oldest cryonics community, Alcor, in Arizona, USA. If his resurrection does not work, he will simply continue to be dead - but if science succeeds, then he will have the chance to at least partially satisfy his curiosity about the future.

Joel is a tech-savvy futurist and very healthy. He would still like to experience how human brains are uploaded to a cloud so that bionic bodies can be borrowed as required, like with an Uber app. Climb Mount Everest once? Maybe you could then put your brain on a mountaineer's body and let him experience the summit storm. He could no longer experience the realization of this vision in this lifetime. Cryonics, he thinks, gives him the chance to do it after all in a number of years.

Lottery six

Joel compares the chances of his rebirth with those of a lottery jackpot. A few years ago he was won over by a text that began with a parable. In a crashing plane, the pilot reports certain death in 15 minutes. Parachutes that are not fully developed and have a minimal chance of survival are offered. Joel wants to strap on the umbrella.

His family is skeptical, but his father accompanied the US West artist when he visited his final (or interim?) Resting place. He has supported him ever since.

Dennis Kowalski, President of the Cryonics Institute (CI), wants to take his immediate family with him on the journey, as he says about the STANDARD. He will one day fall asleep in the hope of seeing his loved ones again. The principle of hope drives not only atheists and agnostics, but also religious people into the tanks filled with liquid nitrogen. Only the high level of education is common to all, says Kowalski.

He understands the skepticism of many people. However, this will become less and less over time. In the beginning, many organ transplants believed that "playing God", but now it is almost universally accepted. He would like to see a similar development in cryonics.

The living and the dead

The Alcor community currently has 1,317 members. 181 of them are currently at minus 196 degrees Celsius in Arizona since their clinical death. You have fallen asleep in the confidence that the group of 233 degrees warmer members will only try to thaw you if this is possible without serious damage. Nobody knows whether medicine will ever be able to do this. Some cryonics believe that it could be in 50 years. Most are counting on centuries. Much more skeptical are those who deal every day with freezing and thawing living material - so-called cryobiologists.

The process of removing all body fluids from people legally declared dead and replacing them with a toxic antifreeze is the minor problem. It is far more likely to fail due to the thawing process, as freezing crystals and cracks form here, which damage the cell structure. In addition, they say there is a constant threat of acute insufficient oxygen supply to the organism.

It is also more than doubtful whether the complex structure of the brain can be preserved.

Eisner is also skeptical about freezing. It is almost more promising to prevent death itself. For example, if you manage to switch off those pacemaker cells that, to put it simply, initiate death in the body.

What does hope cost?

The cryonics, however, continue to open their wallets to the institutes, which, mind you, are non-profits. The resting place is much cheaper with the CI than with the competition. Alcor demands 200,000 euros for the storage of the entire body - the brain alone is around half. The remainder can be bred or renewed by then anyway, so the thesis. Some pay in cash, but most rely on life insurance.

"I see it as a kind of investment with a bonus," says Joel. If he changed his mind, he could have the bonus paid out and "only" burned the membership fee of around 500 euros a year. This includes a bracelet that immediately informs the institute of his death, provided the community is not already waiting on the edge of the bed for the last heartbeat.

In such containers the "patients" of a handful of cryonic institutes worldwide are at minus 196 degrees. All are legally dead, all hope for their rebirth. (Fabian Sommavilla, December 19, 2020)