Cryonics seeks to preserve terminally ill humans in anticipation of future medical advances that may restore these patients to youthful vigor, cure their devastating diseases, and resuscitate them from cryopreservation itself. At the core of this mission lies the goal of preserving that which we know to be most important to continuity of the person him/herself: the brain.
Absent reversible cryopreservation of the brain (i.e., maintenance of viability), a cryonicist’s best hope for eventual resuscitation lies in preserving brain ultrastructure with as much fidelity as possible. Improvements in cryopreservation solutions, methodologies, and protocols from the field to the operating room have greatly enhanced our ability to meet this objective, as evidenced by microscopic evaluations of tissues vitrified in the lab. More recently, CT scans of patients after neuropreservation have provided valuable feedback as to the efficacy of cryoprotective perfusion in actual Alcor cases. Such progress bodes well for good patient outcomes.
But even our greatest attempts at optimal preservation are thwarted by issues such as long ischemic periods resulting in significant perfusion impairment or even the inability to perfuse at all. So how do we evaluate these patients in light of our objective?
Perhaps the best place to start is the extreme. Let us consider, for example, a prehistoric human brain discovered in 2008 at a construction site in York, UK. A paper published in 2011 in the Journal of Archaeological Science (“Exceptional preservation of a prehistoric human brain from Heslington, Yorkshire, UK”) provides gross and histological observations as well as preliminary results of chemical assays in order to determine the extent and cause of preservation of the brain. Low-powered reflected light microscopy and electron microscopy were performed to explore the surviving morphology and histology of the brain, while highly sensitive neuroimmunological techniques and proteomic analyses were employed to explore brain chemistry.
Examination of the skull indicated death by an abrupt trauma to the neck followed by deliberate dismemberment of the head between veretebrae C2 and C3. Significantly, the authors report “no trace of microbial activity, bacterial or fungal, with none of the porosity or ‘tunneling’ that is characteristic of putrefactive microorganisms.” Examination of the brain masses revealed recognizable sulci and gyri, but neither macroscopic nor CT evaluation could differentiate between grey and white matter.
Histological examination of the brain masses showed “a homogenous, amorphous substance that had not retained any cellular or matrix structure.” Transmission electronic microscopy (TEM) also did not detect any surviving cellular structure, although it did reveal what appeared to be “numerous morphologically degraded structures characteristic of the myelin sheath of nerve fibres.”
Preliminary biomolecular analysis found only 5% of the brain was detectable as hydrolysable amino acids, in contrast to fresh brain tissue of which proteins represent more than 1/3 of dry weight. When compared with a fresh brain, the Heslington brain was also depleted in polar amino acids and enriched in hydrophobic amino acids. Very little undegraded solventsoluble brain lipid was preserved (0.8%- 1.1% wet weight compared with 17.1% for rat brain). In addition, there was an almost complete absence of phospholipids and only a trace of cholesterol, while degradation products of a wide range of lipids were found in abundance.
Ultimately, the authors determined that the preservation of this brain was due to decapitation (thus eliminating the movement of putrefying bacteria from the gut to the brain) followed by inhibition of postmortem putrefaction achieved through rapid burial into fine-grained wet sediment. They go on to argue that this type of preservation is not as unusual as one might think, citing several similar examples of preserved prehistoric human brains, almost always found in wet burial environments.
While interesting in its own right, few would argue that the Heslington brain represents a state of preservation amenable to resuscitation. The ability to infer anything beyond gross macro structure has been obliterated and the normal chemical constituents of the brain have dissolved almost completely into the surrounding environment. Clearly, much of the look of a brain can be retained while none of the person’s identity remains (or is recoverable).
Let us then look at a situation that hits a little closer to home. Published in Forensic Science International in 2007, an article entitled “Autopsy at 2 months after death: Brain is satisfactorily preserved for neuropathology” provides us with considerable food for thought. In this example, a 77-year-old woman’s whole body was stored postmortem in a 3°C cooling chamber for 2 months prior to chemical fixation of her brain at autopsy.
The authors describe moderate autolysis of internal organs of the body, indicating the start of decomposition and putrefaction, as well as reduced tissue consistency and superficial areas of disintegration of the brain. Overall gross morphology was sufficiently preserved to allow macroscopic examination and application of neuropathological methods for diagnosis of neurological disorders. Importantly, they also report that “histologically, normal brain structures including all major parenchymal cell types (neurons, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, microglia), neuropil, axons, and myelin sheaths were preserved.”
In this case, the use of cold temperatures (3°C) drastically slowed, but did not stop, deterioration of the brain. However, enough of the brain’s chemical constituents and physical structure remained to provide the basis for possible future resuscitation. And while this woman’s brain was preserved by chemical diffusion over the course of 9 weeks (allowing for continued degradation of subcortical tissues during the course of fixation), the use of cryogenic temperatures to quickly preserve her brain would also have been possible, as has been the situation for many “straight frozen” Alcor patients who were received in similar condition.
Exactly where the line between recoverability and non-recoverability — resulting in information-theoretic death — exists is yet to be determined. And while we push, rightfully, for ever greater preservation methods, we do well to remember that those preserved under lessthan- optimal conditions are by no means lost causes. Preserved information, even in fractured and distorted form, may well be adequate to infer the original state.
Originally published as an article (in the Cooler Minds Prevail series) in Cryonics magazine, March, 2013