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Why it is worthwhile to preserve the human body or brain even without cryoprotective perfusion

The question "Does it make sense to cryopreserve a person if we can not do perfusion" often arises when communicating with potential clients. Usually they raise this issue in one of these two cases:

  1. When the client (usually subconsciously) is looking for any reason not to sign a cryonics contract (70% of cases),
  2. When a person is genuinely unaware that even without perfusion it makes a lot of sense to cryopreserve the body or brain (30%).

Портрет Роберта Эттингера

So does it really make sense to preserve the body of a person if, for some reason, perfusion has not been done? Let’s imagine that the deceased person was taken without any perfusion and placed in regular water ice or in dry ice and then sent, for example, by plane from the USA to Russia, after which that person was cooled to the temperature of dry ice and then even further to -196°C.

To understand the situation, we need to return to the past, to the early days of the cryonics history. Its history began in the 1960-s when the book “The Prospects of Immortality” by Robert Ettinger was published. I hope everyone reading this have read the book by “the father of cryonics”, because it’s really accessible and contains just a minimum of technical and biomedical details. The book focuses more on moral and philosophical questions, arguing for the benefits of cryonics, while raising questions about why it should be done and how it will be done in the future, how is it compatible with religion...

This focus is understandable, as at that time only two of the supposed reanimation technologies could be imagined: artificial organs and organ transplantation from deceased organ donors. Other technologies simply did not exist. At that point in time there was no artificial intelligence, not even crude computer models of the human body and brain, no growing of organs from stem cells, even the field of transplantology took only its first steps. And of course 3D-printing of organs and nanorobots could not be conceived.

The first heart transplant operation took place only 5 years after the publication of Ettinger’s book, in 1967. It was an early stage in development of medical technology...

But in parallel with this progress cryobiology was making big progress.

Since the end of the 19th century, biologists have developed the theory of anabiosis, the beginning of which was laid down by Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (1632 - 1723). A great Russian scientist Vladimir Bekhterev have also contributed.

So, since the 19th  century, enthusiasts of the field have intensively studied the possibility of freezing various organisms and their parts, dreaming of freezing the whole person. Experiments were done including freezing of a leg, hands of a deceased person, scientists were trying to freeze large animals, but were having few successes. By the middle of the 20th century, cryobiology of large objects was exhausting the possibilities. No progress happened with preservation of large organs. The only ones to succeed were attempts to cryopreserved very small objects, barely larger than a single cell.

At one point cryoprotective properties of glycerol were discovered. Glycerol is a natural cryoprotectant, a substance that, in particular, is contained inside some frog species so that they can easily go into anabiosis. So scientists came up with the idea that it would be nice to create a cryoprotectant solution that could be injected into the body replacing blood so that the body can then be frozen and later thawed without damage. Or at least the damage caused by freezing could be significantly reduced.

The idea was good, but it still did not lead to reversible cryopreservation of large organs and organisms. However its realization made it feasible to cryopreserve small objects, including many different types of cells.

When cryonics appeared there were already practical technologies for cryopreservation of cells using cryoprotectants. Naturally the founders of cryonics knew about it. It was already well known that if cells are injected with a cryoprotectant there is no damage caused. And that's why from the very beginning cryonics research was motivated by a dream to develop perfect perfusion technology – develop cryoprotectants that prevent formation of ice crystals and perfuse the body of people who just died through the circulatory system with them, making it easier and easier to cryopreserve and then, in the future, revive people.

The idea of cryoprotectants was straightforward and very attractive from the very beginning of the development of cryonics.

There are many different cryoprotectants with very different properties. There are penetrating and non-penetrating cryoprotectants, there are glycerol-based solutions, propylene glycol, ethylene glycol, dimethylsulfoxide and many others. There are whole classes of basic chemical cryoprotectants and recently scientists even started to experiment with adding nanoparticles to cryoprotectants... But ideal cryonics process was not achieved this way.

Yuri Pichugin, an outstanding cryocryobiologist, who made many important contributions to the field, has written a very important paper arguing that it will be impossible to create new cryoprotectants on the basis of conventional chemicals. All possible low-molecular-weight cryoprotectants have already been discovered. This paper is an important theoretical achievement, although it does not consider the possibility of using nanoparticles and the creation of cryoprotectants based on noble gases.

Still, no matter what kind of research was done, it didn't make cryonics perfect. Very good results were achieved on the scale of cells and small organisms. The technology of vitrification was created - it's a special type of cryopreservation requiring cooling the object according to a certain protocol and with special cryoprotectants. It allows very high quality preservation, but only for very small objects: various cells, including oocytes and spermatozoa. This technology is used by all ART firms.

But it was not possible to vitrify any organ well until 2005, when 21st Century Medicine performed a reversible cryopreservation of rabbit's kidney.

Still, even lacking the perfect technology of reversible cryopreservation, cryonics companies still cryopreserved deceased people, because people could not wait, they die not according to a plan, but when death comes to them. Yes, starting in 1967, when the first cryonics client James Bedford was frozen, people were preserved using available technology.

Even today, Alcor and Cryonics Institute vitrify the brain and the body is generally not vitrified at all, sometimes the body is not perfused but is simply frozen without cryoprotectants. That's an accepted practice - to: the brain is vitrified, and the body is straight frozen.

A small remark: it is believed by science that a person's identity is in the brain. Therefore we will further concentrate on talking about the brain.

The vitrification of the brain, which is now used in cryonics, can be much better than glycerol perfusion, but only under certain conditions, if everything happens under control and at the right time. If a person dies near Alcor or in Cryonics Institute, then he has a chance to have his brain vitrified properly. At the same time, there is still no detailed evidence showing that vitrification protocol leads to perfect preservation of the brain. This is still a blind spot for science, still an open question.

At the moment the situation in all cryonics firms is as follows. "KrioRus" is approaching the introduction of vitrification technology, and we think that this year we are likely to test it. The vitrification of the head, done in Alcor and Cryonics Institute has almost never been perfect. Also, they usually froze the body together with the brain, but without cryoprotection for the cells of the body. Now the cryopreservation technology is still such that even with perfusion performed at the right time, it does not allow preserving a large animal such as a dog perfectly and then reviving it using present day technology.

What does it mean for people? Does it mean that people who have been already cryopreserved will not be revived?

No, that's not the case.

In European and American cryonics communities many people focus on perfusion as the most important and even necessary thing, without which cryonics does not make sense. The origin of this idea lies in the history of cryonics and its peculiar traditions. Note for instance that even now Cryonics Institute does not perform neuro-preservation. Alcor does it, but Cryonics Institute doesn't. Why?

Well, it's because Robert Ettinger believed that if Cryonics Institute announced the procedure of neurological preservation, it would alienate the clients. He said people will not understand cutting off the head, it's so shocking and ugly! Such fears were present in Russia too in the beginning of the era of Russian cryonics. But today there is no talk of this, despite the initial concerns. The same concerns that Cryonics Institute witnessed early on affected them too much. And now they still cryopreserve the whole body.

The approach of the Cryonics Institute shows the impacts from the ancient times of cryonics. Nowadays there are no such fears, the whole world knows that it is possible to preserve just the brain or head. And no one is afraid of this, no one will turn away from cryonics, but the memory that it was once necessary to preserve the head together with the body still negatively affects the development of the Cryonics Institute.

Similarly, the belief that perfusion is absolutely necessary goes back to the time when cryonics was born when the technologies of future recovery were unknown.

Now they are still not fully known, but there is already an understanding of what these technologies can include.

In 1986 Eric Drexler wrote the book "Engines of Creation", where in the ninth chapter he described how the cryopatient's body could be restored with the help of nanorobots - even imperfectly cryopreserved body. But the book was released more than twenty years after the advent of cryonics. Before that, for twenty years, people could not really imagine that this would be possible. And the idea that the body must necessarily be perfectly cryopreserved stayed and it determined the strategy for the development of cryonic organizations.

Later, projects began to emerge that focused on on brain scanning, brain modeling. Later on technologies for 3D-printing and growing organs and various tissues appeared...

Today it is abundantly clear that if we keep the brain preserved, even if the process is imperfect, but causes partial damage, we will be able (if not today, but in the foreseeable, and not too distant future) to scan the brain perfectly at molecular resolution, place this model in the computer simulation and then study it, understand all the damage caused, describe it, and in silico (in the computer) develop a comprehensive program of cellular repair of the brain. And if we develop the technology of medical nanorobots that will repair the brain, we will be able either to thaw the brain and use the nanorobots to repair it, or 3D-print a new brain according to the computer model that is absolutely identical, down to individual cells and atoms, to the one that exists in the computer, except not damaged - fixed where necessary.

Even now, in 2017, these technologies are already understandable to us, they do not contradict the scientific understanding of the world, the laws of nature and they give the understanding to us that it is not necessary to do perfusion. Of course, it would be better to do everything perfectly, to do vitrification, perhaps to do vitrification with nanoparticles, as was recently tried at the University of Minnesota.

But if the situation after the official death of the cryopatient has developed in such a way that it is not possible, then the patient should simply be frozen in ice or in dry ice, and then delivered to the cryonics facility and stored there with the reasonable hope that in the foreseeable future, with the help of the technologies that we now know and can expect (or perhaps even better ones that we can not yet imagine) it will be possible to restore a person to life.

What are the questions we should ask about such a strategy?

The first question is about the degree of damage. What the additional damage will be if you just freeze the brain or tissues?

First of all, our experience tells us that often when this question arises among cryonists who are considering cryopreserving someone, it is caused not by the actual necessity of this knowledge, but by some restlessness, which is natural for people in such a situation. Indeed, knowledge of the degree of damage can not give them anything, since they do not know what kind of damage can be fixed in the future, and what can't.

Nevertheless, it is possible to look for an answer to it.

There are enough papers about the quality of preservation of the canine brain and brains of other animals with cryoprotective perfusion and without it. If you look at the illustrations accompanying these articles, even the images where there was no perfusion do not show a featureless homogeneous environment. Cells can be observed, some intact, some damaged, but the overall microstructure of the tissue can be traced and where there is damage - inferred. This clearly indicates that the information death of the cryopatient has not occurred, and therefore, the patient can be reanimated in the future, his organism restored.

This understanding emerged only in the 21st century, with the development of advanced biomedical technologies. We should be honest to ourselves and to our clients in that even if a person is directly frozen and places into cryogenic storage, he can be revived in the future. That is, of course, unless too much time has passed before freezing and unless the brain has been damaged by decomposition and bacteria.

Therefore, we need to explain to cryonicists who are faced with a complicated situation that even if in their case it is not possible to perform perfusion procedures for some reason, they should freeze the person in dry ice and send to the cryonics storage facility.

Earlier we have mentioned two concepts for the restoration of the cryopreserved brain in the future. The first is the idea of 3D-printing the brain, which will be identical to the original, only already healed. The second is the concept of brain repair using nanorobots according to a computer generated repair plan. It must be said that work on developing medical nanorobots has already begun, new concepts are constantly emerging and their components are being tested. This technology is not being developed for the purpose of cryonics, but because it is applicable in many fields of medicine and pharma. Nanobots are being designed for destroying tumors in cancer patients and for the treatment of patients with brain stroke. The latter type is especially promising and important for us because nanorobots that will pass into the brain to treat stroke damage are the prototypes of those nanorobots that will eventually treat all other diseases and brain damage. We can be pretty confident that eventually they will be created.

One can imagine other approaches to recovery, even some as advanced and ambitious as reconstructing the person using models inferred from data about the person. In case of a cryonics patient this can be used to confirm that the brain of revived patient has been preserved and repaired well.

Consider, for example, the Blue Brain Project. This project created a complete model of the neocortex column. The neocortex column is the structure in the brain of about a hundred neurons. It is perpendicular to the cortex surface and groups of these columns are responsible for the functioning of a single small character trait. For example, whether the person likes a particular smell or not. This is the result of the combined work of particular neocortex columns. There are more than one hundred million of them. It's possible that during the freezing several of these columns get damaged or destroyed. If we understand how they function, how they are related to other areas of the brain, then we can do the following. Suppose that at some point in life this person completed the so-called "Bainbridge questionnaire" to record his personality. The Bainbridge questionnaire consists of one hundred thousand questions, which, of course, take a long time to answer, but it is possible. The answers can be recorded on video, in audio, or in text format.

Bainbridge is a very well known person in transhumanism, in 2006 he co-authored with Mihail C. Roco the report "Progress in Convergence: Technologies for Human Wellbeing" that in 2017 formed the basis of the Russian "Strategy for the Development of Convergent Technologies".

And now imagine that we know from the questionnaire the features for which the groups of neocortex columns are responsible. We know whether the smell of roses is pleasant or not, whether there was irritation from some medicine or not, whether the person is religious or not. Knowing the answers to these questions from either the Bainbridge questionnaire or through processing of available information by some computer program, we will be able to model the neocortex columns to represent the right answers. This way we will be able to restore a small part of the brain. This is a radical new approach, but it is gradually developing and has a chance to be successful.

Those who watched the TV series "Bones" know how much we can learn about a person simply by studying the bones of long-disappeared people. We see how much one can learn about the personality of a person who died 5000 years ago by studying the mummy of Etsi, who for millenia was lying frozen in the Alps. Consider that the preservation quality of his body was orders of magnitude worse than what happens during the regular freezing of a person.

Therefore, the regular freezing without perfusion after death and further storage in a cryonics company, in fact, has the same meaning as cryonics done with a perfusion procedure. Of course, it's better to do everything well and it's right to strive for perfection, ideally one would use a reversible cryopreservation protocol (which, sadly, scientists have not yet developed). That would improve quality and speed recovery.

But, in general, when we take future and its possibilities sincerely, when we expect to be able to revive people, there is no reason to believe that patients who were preserved after a perfusion will be revived in a better way than those frozen patients who were not perfused, but still promptly frozen shortly after death.

Nevertheless, we at KrioRus will do our best and want everyone to support our aspiration to cryopreserve cryonics patients in the best possible way available at any given time.