by Joseph Atkinson
Han Solo in Star Wars. Philip J. Fry in Futurama. Austin Powers in… Austin Powers. While it’s difficult to think of three more different characters, all three of them have one thing in common – they’ve all been frozen and successfully unfrozen with no side effects to speak of. While the concept is one that’s been widely used in science fiction, it’s taken one step closer to becoming science fact after scientists successfully restored the frozen brain of a rabbit to near-impeccable condition.
The breakthrough concludes a five-year drive to successfully preserve the brain of a small mammal, after the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) offered a reward to anyone who could successfully do so without causing damage to neural connections essential to a brain’s function.
The team who worked on the project, based in California at the 21st Century Medicine research institute, have earned their company just over £18,000 after they successfully used a recently developed technique known as ‘aldehyde-stabilised cryopreservation’. This involves subjecting the brain to the chemical glutaraldehyde, which is toxic, allowing the brain to be frozen at -135C.
The President of the BPF, Kenneth Hayworth, who is a neuroscientist by profession, praised the researchers, saying: “Every neurone and synapse looks beautifully preserved across the entire brain.
“This result directly answers a main sceptical and scientific criticism against cryonics – that it does not provably preserve the delicate synaptic circuitry of the brain.”
While this development represents significant progress in the field of cryonics, it still remains to be seen how long it will take until such processes can be used to successfully revive a human from cryogenic freezing.
Companies exist that specialise in cryonic preservation, one of the most prominent being the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in the US, which charges £140,000 for a whole-body freeze. In 2013, 23-year-old Kim Suozzi opted to have her head cryonically frozen, at a cost of £49,000 having crowdfunded via Reddit.
Suozzi, who died of terminal brain cancer, chose to undergo the procedure in the hope of some future technology being capable of reviving her mind in some form.
While the process of reviving a human body from cryonic freezing may still be a long way away, researchers are now hoping to replicate the process with the brains of larger mammals, such as mammals and primates, but expressed caution at the prospect of doing the same with human brains due to the inevitable delay between death and the brain being delivered to a brain bank.
This milestone is one of many made in the field over the years, a major one being to prevent vitrification – the formation of ice on the brain. The BPF hopes to develop a way of retaining a brain’s memories while it is cryonically frozen.
“There is compelling preliminary evidence from the neuroscience literature that preserving a brain at the ultrastructure level might also preserve the memories stored in the brain,” read a statement from the foundation, which expressed its excitement at the implications of the recent progress in the field.