Cryonics is a complicated idea to explain and one of the most common misunderstandings is to confuse it with suspended animation. This leads critics to conclude that cryonics cannot work because we are not yet capable of placing a patient in cryostasis and reversing this procedure without causing damage. Advocates of cryonics have written careful expositions to make the point that human suspended animation is a desirable goal but not necessary for cryonics to succeed. I will not go into these arguments here but want to discuss what role the idea of suspended animation can play at Alcor.
First of all, the development of human suspended animation can be a formal research goal of a cryonics organization. As obvious as this may be, I am not aware of any cryonics organization that has communicated that this is their ultimate research objective. This is unfortunate because it is important for our credibility to develop a form of reversible biostasis. After all, if our procedures are fully reversible we do not always need to evoke alternative definitions of death and will often be able to claim that a critically ill patient who is cryopreserved is still alive (without the need for quotation marks around the word death). Offering human suspended animation as a form of biostasis leaves critics to argue that a disease will never be cured as the only remaining objection, which would be a rather preposterous claim.
The goal of offering suspended animation can also guide a cryonics organization to decide which new technologies to introduce and upgrade. For example, suspended animation is incompatible with the presence of fractures (which would need repair) and a transition to cooldown or long term care technologies that prevent fracturing would be a necessary step to move further into the direction of suspended animation. It is important to understand the piecemeal nature of this. A cryonics organization does not go from offering straight freezing to suspended animation overnight but seeks to introduce improved procedures towards that goal on an incremental basis. The more obstacles to suspended animation we can eliminate (ice formation, fracturing), the more identifiable and recognizable the remaining challenges, like cryoprotectant toxicity, will be.
One major misunderstanding about the role of suspended animation is that until we have perfected our technologies, the concept of suspended animation cannot be used as a benchmark to evaluate cases. In fact, we can use the concept of suspended animation in a meaningful way when we write our case reports and discuss case outcomes right now. The reason why we can do this is because loss of viability is not a characteristic of all our procedures but, in a good case, is something that happens further downstream. In an ideal case, we suspect that viability is lost somewhere mid-way during cryoprotective perfusion where the concentration of the cryoprotectant and exposure time render organs non-viable by contemporary viability criteria. Another way of phrasing this is that our procedures should be reversible up to that point. This benchmark is extremely important in evaluating the quality of care at a cryonics organization and guiding procedures in an actual case. It is even possible to identify the point at which viability is lost by monitoring the patient during stabilization procedures and taking a small (microliter) brain or spinal cord biopsy after cryoprotective perfusion.
If Alcor takes itself seriously as a scientific organization, each case report should contain a discussion about how successful the organization was in sustaining viability as long as possible, and if not, whether these problems were beyond Alcor’s control or reflect errors made during the case. This allows us to observe patterns and trends and introduce measures and upgrades that push reversibility further downstream in our procedures.
Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, December 2015