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Cryonics: To commend or condemn?

Often dismissed as science fiction, cryonics is one of the most intriguing offshoots of biology. At the heart of cryonics lies the belief that a legally dead person can be resuscitated in the future if their brain is preserved well. Bear in mind, however, that this possibility is heavily dependent on the advent of technology.

At its core, cryonics involves freezing the brain to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196°C or -320.8 F) immediately after death, causing the brain to enter ‘cryonic suspension.’ Biological activity completely ceases at this temperature, hence preventing tissue decay.

It is generally believed that the brain will be stored in optimal conditions until such a time when it is technologically possible to either upload it to a machine or synthesise an entirely new body.

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Is Cryonics really possible?

Currently, there is no guarantee regarding the outcome of cryonics. However, it is worth taking a look at both the possibilities and their current status.

In vitro and in vivo synthesis of living tissue is a major research division in the field of bioengineering. Avascular tissue, such as the epidermis, has been regularly and successfully synthesised in vitro over the past few years. Vascular tissue too has been successfully synthesised in the past, but it is a tedious process.

The conditions and environment for development have to be precise up to a molecular level in order to obtain significant numbers of cells. Synthesis of stem cells is a promising alternative and research into this field has been on an upward trajectory since 2006.

Bioengineering is rapidly growing and evolving, and it is not entirely inconceivable that every organ can soon be manufactured in a lab. The real problem arises when it comes to the assembly of individually synthesised parts.

The human body is a delicately tuned network of large organs and lymph, interspersed with nerves, capillaries, bones and millions of exceedingly small particles. Specific disease resistance and immunity are acquired through evolution, metabolic functionality through DNA codes and symbiotic microbes from the lifestyle.

Not all these components can be synthesised in a lab as more often than not, they are acquired via placenta or from experiences. Moreover, every infinitesimally small crevice or curve between two adjacent structures is of utmost importance and would be impossible to achieve manually. Every cell of every tissue in the body can be replaced, but a body cannot be assembled from scratch.

Similarly, the idea behind ‘uploading’ neural connections to a machine to revive the human consciousness is implausible as little to nothing is known about the nature of synaptic conditions.

Though there is sufficient research into neural interactions, the precise molecular compositions of every neural net are unknown and hence cannot be synthetically obtained. Further, a single neural pathway can have vastly different functions depending on the stimulus received.

The sheer volume of factors to consider while attempting to synthesise a single nerve leads one to believe that it may be nearly impossible to artificially generate a conglomeration of 100 billion neurons that comprise the brain.

Technological drawbacks aside, it has been observed that nematode worms have been cryogenically preserved and successfully revived. Though no mammal has yet undergone the procedure, it is theorised to be possible as a rabbit liver was completely functional after cryopreservation.

As cryonics still lingers at the fringe of science, supporting research is relatively less. Though the field is usually dismissed as pseudoscience, there is no extant literature claiming that cryonics won’t work. This lends cryonics the benefit of the doubt and a fighting chance for growth and development.

Is Cryonics the right way to go?

Practically, cryopreservation is a highly expensive venture. The oldest known patient currently being held in cryo-suspension is Dr James Bedford. He was cryogenically frozen in 1967 and has remained relatively unchanged over half a century.

Nevertheless, preservation for such lengthy periods is not easy on the pocket. A hefty principle is usually paid for the initial procedure, followed by periodically recurring sums of money to be paid for maintaining the specimen.

Currently, the major names in cryonics are Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Cryonics Institute, American Cryonics Society, Immortalist Society, and Suspended Animation, Inc.

The ethics of cryonics is still a highly debated issue. Some existential questions, which need to be answered before further development, more often than not pertain to whether or not cryonics is ‘natural’. Other concerns include the possibility that humans may not live life to the fullest in order to save money for cryogenic procedures, and the premature termination of life to maximise the chances of success.

Though the idea of having one’s consciousness outlast the mortal body is rather appealing, it should be taken with a grain of salt. There is really no guarantee that the time and effort will eventually be worth it, but there is no evidence to the contrary either. There’s a thin line between the ridiculous and the remarkable, and only time will tell what the venture of cryonics will turn out to be.

Also read: Immortality might be closer than we think, Nanotechnology might be the link

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