Woman on laptop researching how cryonic preservation works.

4 minute read

Cryo-fiction: Does Cryonic Preservation Work?

Cryonic preservation has garnered a lot of buzz in recent years. But how exactly does cryogenic freezing work? And is it effective? Trust & Will explains.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Dr. James H. Bedford was the first person to have his body cryonically preserved after his death in 1967. He was a retired psychology professor, and the cryonics world calls him the ‘cryonaut.’ Several decades have passed, and we still have no idea if the science or technology to bring these preserved bodies back to life will ever be discovered. Cryonic preservation continues to make a lot of buzz, and it’s certainly an interesting alternative to cremation or burial. Trust & Will explores the science behind cryonic preservation, including how it works and if what it’s promising is possible. 

What is cryonic preservation?

Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a leader in the world of cryonics, defines cryonic preservation as “the science of using ultra-cold temperatures to preserve human life with the intent of restoring good health when technology becomes available to do so.” 

The process involves taking an individual’s body, after death, and cooling it to frigid temperatures (around - 200 degrees Celsius). The body’s cells, tissues, and organs are preserved and protected from decay. 

Contrary to popular belief, the body is not turned into an ice cube. This is a highly controlled process that cools a corpse down using an ice bath and medical-grade antifreeze that prevents rupturing. The body is then stored long-term in a tank holding liquid nitrogen. 

The Cryonics Institute, another major cryonics foundation, explains that the ultimate goal of cryonics is to give individuals a second lease on life and to extend human lifespans. Individuals who opt for cryonic preservation wish to be preserved indefinitely until the science and technology to revive them and then possibly cure their illness or condition becomes available. 

To be clear, not only is this technology unavailable at this time, there are many skeptics in the scientific community.

What is meant by cryopreservation?

Cryopreservation is an alternate scientific term used to describe the cryonic preservation process. Extremely low temperatures are used to preserve living cells and tissues that are still structurally intact. Freezing cells without protection can be lethal. When not careful, freezing can cause cells to rupture.

Instead, through cryopreservation, cells and tissues are cooled gradually. This creates a stable condition that can preserve life and prevent freezing injury. 

Note that this definition alludes to “living” cells and tissues. Successful cryopreservation requires immediate action after a legal death to preserve still-living cells as much as possible and to prevent the natural process of decay from occurring. 

How does cryopreservation work?

Let’s take a deeper dive into how the process of cryopreservation works.

According to the Cryonics Institute, cryopreservation requires three key steps. 

Once an individual has been declared legally dead, immediate action is required. Their body must be placed in an ice bath. A ventilation mask is used to continue oxygenating the body’s cells and organs. The Institute also recommends utilizing CPR while the body is transported to maintain blood flow, along with the use of heparin, an anticoagulant. However, the most important action item is the cooling of the body with ice. 

The Scientific American explains that cell metabolism continues 4 to 10 minutes after death, depending on the body’s temperature. This urgent response after death when opting for cryopreservation is critical, as it prolongs the life of cells and tissues until the next step can take place. 

Once the body has been transported to the location where cryonic preservation will take place, the body is vitrified. The body, thus its cells and organs, is prepared for the cooling process by injecting protective antifreeze agents. Explained earlier, freezing can cause damage and protective measures must take place. 

Here, the controlled cooling process takes place. The body is placed within an insulated bag and cooling box. Liquid nitrogen is fed into the chamber at a steady rate for several days until the body reaches minus 200 degrees Celsius. This slow and steady cooling of the body helps to prevent damage.

Finally, the body is transported to a storage facility where it is placed inside a cryostat, or a liquid nitrogen vessel. They are not powered by electricity, protecting them from power outages. This is where the body rests for the indefinite future.

This begs the question: will there come a time when these bodies will be “defrosted”? Is the technology and science to bring these individuals back to life possible? 

Is cryogenic freezing possible?

Individuals who opt for cryogenic freezing in their end-of-life wishes are essentially buying time. They’re doing so with the hopes that science and technology will catch up. In an ideal world, their body will be fully repaired and restored. Any disease or condition that may have caused their death, including old age, can be reversed and cured. 

How the science and technology to bring a cryogenically frozen individual back to life does not yet exist. 

Imperial College London clinical senior lecturer Dr. Channa Jayasena stated that the claim that a person can be brought back to life in the future is science fiction, even while taking into account technological advances. “Cryonics has risks for the patient, poses ethical issues for society, is highly expensive, but has no proven benefit. If this was a drug, it would never get approved.”

Further, scientists are skeptical that cryogenic freezing works in the first place.

In a Discover Magazine interview, Harvard University cryobiologist Shannon Tessier said, “there is absolutely no current way, no proven scientific way, to actually freeze a whole human down to that temperature without completely destroying — and I mean obliterating — the tissue.” Tessier argues that we do not have scientific evidence proving that we are successfully preserving bodies cryogenically without destroying cells and tissues.  

Cremation, burial & natural funerals - know your burial options

In this guide, we investigated the buzzy concept of cryonic preservation. In summary, it is the process of cooling a body immediately after death to preserve it and prevent the natural process of decay. Individuals who opt into this process for their end-of-life wishes often feel like they have nothing to lose. They are optimistic or curious about a future where the science and technology to restore the body (and possibly reverse illness and aging) will exist. Scientists have made it clear that this is currently science fiction, and the technology does not exist. Further, many are skeptical that while cryonic preservation may be possible, reversing the process and reviving a person who passed away will ever be possible. Only time will tell!

Would you opt for cryonic preservation, or do you find it completely absurd? Regardless of what your opinion might be, this begs the thought-provoking question about what end-of-life wishes resonate the best. It can be uncomfortable to think about our own death, but it can be immensely helpful if we specify our wishes in our Estate Plan. That way, our loved ones can have peace of mind knowing that they will honor your memory in the way that you would have wished. Here is our guide on different types of funerals so that you can begin to ponder your options.

When you do get an idea of what your end-of-life wishes are, don’t forget to make them known through your estate plan. At Trust & Will, we’re here to help keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific estate plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning and settlement  options today!

Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Browse more topics in our learn center or chat with a live member support representative!

Trust & Will is an online service providing legal forms and information. We are not a law firm and we do not provide legal advice.