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11 July 2008

Into the long, deep, deep cold

Filed under: cryonics, Methuselah, UKTA — David Wood @ 9:11 pm

My interest in smartphones stems from my frequent observation and profound conviction that these devices can make their human users smarter: more knowledgeable, more connected, and more in control. It’s an example of the careful use of technology to make users that are, in some sense, better humans. Technology – including the wheel, the plough, the abacus, the telescope, the watch, the book, the steam engine, the Internet, and (of course) much more besides – has been making humans “better” (stronger, fitter, and cleverer) since the dawn of history. What’s different in our age is that the rate of potential improvement has accelerated so dramatically.

The website “Better Humans” often has interesting articles on this theme of accelerating real-world uses of technology to enhance human ability and experience. This morning my attention was taken by some new articles there with an unusual approach to the touchy subject of cryonics. For example, the article “Cryonics: Using low temperatures to care for the critically ill” starts by quoting the cryobiologist Brian Wowk:

“Ethically, what is the correct thing to do when medicine encounters a difficult problem? Stablize the patient until a solution can be found? Or throw people away like garbage? Centuries from now, historians may marvel at the shortsightedness and rationalizations used to sanction the unnecessary death of millions.”

The article (originally from a site with a frankly less-than-inspiring name, Depressed Metabolism) continues as follows:

In contemporary medicine terminally ill patients can be declared legally dead using two different criteria: whole brain death or cardiorespiratory arrest. Although many people would agree that a human being without any functional brain activity, or even without higher brain function, has ceased to exist as a person, not many people realize that most patients who are currently declared legally dead by cardiorespiratory criteria have not yet died as a person. Or to use conventional biomedical language, although the organism has ceased to exist as a functional, integrated whole, the neuroanatomy of the person is still intact when a patient is declared legally dead using cardiorespiratory criteria.

It might seem odd that contemporary medicine allows deliberate destruction of the properties that make us uniquely human (our capacity for consciousness) unless one considers the significant challenge of keeping a brain alive in a body that has ceased to function as an integrated whole. But what if we could put the brain “on pause” until a time when medical science has become advanced enough to treat the rest of the body, reverse aging, and restore the patient to health?

Putting the brain on pause is not as far fetched as it seems. The brain of a patient undergoing general anesthesia has ceased being conscious. But because we know that the brain that represents the person is still there in a viable body, we do not think of such a person as “temporarily dead.”

One step further than general anesthesia is hypothermic circulatory arrest. Some medical procedures, such as complicated neurosurgical interventions, require not only cessation of consciousness but also complete cessation of blood flow to the brain. In these cases the temperature of the patient is lowered to such a degree (≈16 degrees Celsius) that the brain can tolerate a period without any circulation at all. Considering the fact that parts of the human brain can become irreversibly injured after no more than five minutes without oxygen, the ability of the brain to survive for at least an hour at these temperatures without any oxygen is quite remarkable.

And so it continues. See also, by the same author, “Why is cryonics so unpopular?

Is it really conceivable that the human body (or perhaps just the human head) could be placed into deep, deep cold, potentially for decades, and then subsequently revived and repaired, using the substantially improved technology of the future? Never mind conceivable, is it desirable?

I’m reminded of a book that made a big impression on me, several years ago – the provocatively titled “The first immortal” by James Halperin. It’s written as fiction, but it’s intended to describe a plausible future scenario. I understand that the author did a great deal of research into the technology of cryonics, in order to make the account scientifically credible.

As a work of fiction, it’s no great shakes. The characterisation, the plotting, and the language is often laboured – sometimes even embarrassing. But the central themes of the book are tremendously well done. As a reader, you get to think lots of new thoughts, and appreciate the jaw-dropping ups and downs that cryonics might make possible. (By the way, some of the ideas and episodes in the book are very vivid indeed, and remain clearly in my mind now, quite a few years after I read the book.) As the various characters in the book change their attitudes towards the possibility and desirability of cryonic preservation and restoration, it’s hard not to find your own attitude changing too.

Footnote: Aubrey de Grey, one of the speakers at tomorrow’s UKTA meeting (“How to live longer and longer yet healthier and healthier: realistic grounds for hope?“), has put on public record the fact that he has signed up for cryopreservation. See here for some characteristically no-nonsense statements from Aubrey himself on this topic.

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3 Comments »

  1. There is a certain probability over time that YOU will get a medical problem that NOW will kill you, but in the near future will be curable.

    Bad for morale to have this happen to you, but it is what we can see happening all over the place right now!

    3 years ago it was proved possible to cool kidneys down to a temperature where they could have been stored for 10+ years and then brought back working (see work by Fahy et al).

    While it is highly likely that within 50, and possibly as little as 20 years, that some significant inroads can be made into making your body younger, IF an effort was made to change the above achievement with a single kidney in 2005 into the reversible cooling of an entire small animal, then you could have a ‘backup’ solution for those unlucky enough to get a disease that kills you before we cure that same disease.

    Suggest we start a prize for the first person to reversibly suspend a small mammal.

    We need just one reasonably well off person to not give money now but instead to guarantee that they will pay a prize to anyone who can reversibly pause a small mammal.

    Once you prove safety in a small mammal, unlike most medical procedures, because this is more of a surgical one, there is no problem moving to humans almost immediately.

    I for one would like to have better ‘risk management’ for my life and I expect most people who think they have a few more things to do before they depart will agree???

    Comment by Adrian — 13 July 2008 @ 1:18 am

  2. “Ethically, what is the correct thing to do when medicine encounters a difficult problem? Stablize the patient until a solution can be found? Or throw people away like garbage?”
    Well, the benefit of such a clearly worded quote is that you are left with no question about which side of the argument the author is on. Unfortunately that doesn’t make the statement correct though!

    Ethically, is it valid to spend money preserving rich people in case one day they can be cured of their ills, whilst that same money could save thousands in less fortunate circumstances alive today using cheap medical technology which already exists? If we really are carelessly throwing away millions of middle aged Westerners by not freezing them, what about the billions in the 3rd world left to die of curable diseases? I’m not saying that the money spend on cryogenics would otherwise be spent helping them, or even trying to present a cast iron case that it should be, but any statement attempting to invoke an ethical angle should at least consider the bigger picture.

    Suppose a person from 100 years ago had been preserved, and was now brought back to life through the wonders of medicine. Would they be in any way equipped to deal with the modern world? Everyone they knew would be dead, every place they knew would be changed – maybe completely beyond recognition. Language has moved on, culture, national identity, old enemies are friends now, maybe their home country doesn’t even exist any more. We’d create a huge underclass of people unequipped to handle the world around them – tourists in a strange alien world who are tethered to their tour guides. Maybe a handful would adapt, but plenty would fail and I’d imagine plenty would take their own lives eventually.

    It seems to me that there may well be many fringe benefits from this research, but the core aim is in fact deeply immoral and impractical. Interesting to consider and debate though.

    Comment by raddedas — 13 July 2008 @ 8:20 am

  3. @raddedas:

    As I said, Cryonics is a touchy subject. But as you said (and I agree), “Interesting to consider and debate“.

    >Suppose a person from 100 years ago had been preserved, and was now brought back to life through the wonders of medicine. Would they be in any way equipped to deal with the modern world? Everyone they knew would be dead, every place they knew would be changed – maybe completely beyond recognition.

    The Halperin book I mentioned considers this (and, indeed, very many other angles on Cryonics). In that book, no-one is revived in the future, until such time as they have friends or family willing to take responsibility for their re-integration into the future society. (So revival tends to proceed in reverse order to the original cryonic preservations.)

    >Ethically, is it valid to spend money preserving rich people in case one day they can be cured of their ills

    Most medical breakthroughs start off as expensive and, therefore, as being preferentially available only to the rich (or to people in rich countries). Should we therefore say that, because of ethical concerns for equality of treatment to all, we must disallow any experimentation with treatment that is likely initially to be expensive? I think not. My expectation is that cryonic technology will (like most other technology) reduce significantly in price over time – and therefore will become much more widely available

    >the core aim is in fact deeply immoral and impractical

    Sorry, I disagree with both these claims. There’s nothing immoral per se about wanting to save lives. And the technology may be hard – but so was the technology of manned powered flight. Plenty of people thought that manned powered flight was impractical – and the failed experiments of countless experimenters seemed to prove that view right. But it was wrong.

    @adrian:

    >3 years ago it was proved possible to cool kidneys down to a temperature where they could have been stored for 10+ years and then brought back working (see work by Fahy et al).

    Thanks for mentioning this. I agree this research looks interesting.

    >Suggest we start a prize for the first person to reversibly suspend a small mammal.

    I confess that I’m still at an early stage of my learning about the science and engineering in this field. By chance, Mike Darwin, cryonics pioneer, attended the same meeting I was at yesterday, and we struck up a conversation. I can see that I’ve got lots to learn in this subject!

    Comment by David Wood — 13 July 2008 @ 9:47 am


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