A landmark legal case has put body preservation process Cryonics in the spotlight. But what is it, will it work and is it the future…?

It’s a topical question, with the process of cryonics – preserving a dead body with liquid nitrogen – making the news after a recent High Court ruling. The decision enabled a terminally ill 14-year-old girl to get her wish to have her body preserved after her death.

The ideas behind cryonics are that life can be stopped and restarted if its basic structure is preserved, and, with medicine continually evolving, illnesses that are fatal now may be curable in the future.

Cryonics stops further deterioration so the body may be able to be revived and be treated.

Freezing needs to begin as soon as possible after the patient is declared dead, to prevent damage to the brain. The longer the wait between death and preservation, the more cells will decay, and the harder it will be to resurrect and cure the patients.

First, the body is cooled in an ice bath to reduce its temperature gradually. Sometimes, CPR is done to prevent brain cells from dying, and medications administered. Doctors will then drain the body of all blood and replace it with an anti-freeze fluid to stop ice crystals forming. They may also remove the head if requested.

Then the body is further cooled by nitrogen gas by about one degree Celsius every hour, eventually reaching -196C after about two weeks.

It is then suspended in liquid nitrogen and remains like that indefinitely – until science advances sufficiently to start the hoped-for regeneration part of the process.

Currently, there are only three organizations in the world that offer cryogenic freezing: the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, US, Alcor in Arizona, US and KrioRus in Russia.

The first instance of a body being cryopreserved was in 1967, with more than 100 since. Thousands of people have found the prospect of resurrection attractive enough to make legal and financial arrangements, usually by means of life insurance.

It is not cheap though. The minimum fee for the Cryonics Institute in the US is $28,000 (£22,5000) plus a one-off membership fee of $1,250. Alcor’s 1,000 members pay a yearly membership fee of about $770 and the actual preservation cost ranges from $80,000 to preserve just the brain, up to $200,000 for the whole body.

Some of this goes into a patient care trust fund that keeps the facilities running and the bodies inside preserved for the long haul.

Alcor keeps a watch list of those in failing health, and can alert a ‘standby team’ in some instances. The team then do exactly what that implies, where possible – stand by the person’s bed until they die.

Of course, as yet no one has been able to fully test the process. Scientists have studied the preservation of cells and tissues and even worms, but scaling that up to a full human body is a challenging proposition. But advocates are confident that medical technology will continue to advance and that the premise on which the process is based is a sound one.

The Alcor website says: “when carried out under favourable conditions, both current evidence and current theory support the conclusion that cryonics has a reasonable chance of working… The degree to which cryonics is successful for a particular patient will depend on how much of the patient’s original memory and personality survives the cryopreservation and restoration process.”

And, speaking to the BBC in 2014, Max More, Alcor president and CEO, said: “A hundred years ago, cardiac arrest was irreversible. People were called dead when their heart stopped beating.

“Today death is believed to occur four to six minutes after the heart stops beating because after several minutes it is difficult to resuscitate the brain. However, with new experimental treatments, more than 10 minutes of warm cardiac arrest can now be survived without brain injury.

“Future technologies for molecular repair may extend the frontiers of resuscitation beyond 60 minutes or more, making today’s beliefs about when death occurs obsolete.”