It’s almost impossible to discuss cryonics without mentioning death. An important facet of the conversation is how humanity has learned to perceive death as a process rather than a final destination. Nowadays, people are familiar with the terms legal, clinical, and biological death, however, there is a fourth stage that is often overlooked: information-theoretical death (or info-theoretic for short). The following post will explore the concept of info-theoretical death and what, if any, impact it has on high-quality human cryopreservation.
Society’s definition of death has changed greatly over the centuries. Thanks to advancements in medicine and technology what we viewed as ‘death’ years ago may no longer be the case today. We see the death process consisting of stages: clinical, legal, biological, and info-theoretical. In basic terms, clinical death is typically the first step in the process, where a person’s heart stops pumping blood. With CPR, the patient could be revived with minimal damage happening to the brain, meaning death could be reversed at this early stage with current medical technology.
After about 4-6 minutes of clinical death, if medical practitioners cannot revive the patient despite all efforts, legal death is pronounced. After this, a person’s cells begin to recycle and decay due to a lack of oxygen. This period is known as biological death, and it is a pivotal time for a specialised medical standby team. After 6 minutes of oxygen deprivation, the brain damage worsens with a possibility of permanent damage, which current medical technology is not capable of reversing. It’s important for standby teams (SST) to intervene as quickly as possible after legal death is declared in order to halt cellular decay and ensure the highest-quality cryonic procedure possible.
So, what is the fourth concept? Info-theoretical death occurs when the brain is damaged so severely that revival seems impossible with current and future technologies. US nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle applies the criterion for an information-theoretical death to someone whose brain structures that encode information have been so disrupted that they are no longer recoverable. The best way to illustrate info-theoretical death is to apply it to modern-day technology.
Imagine your phone got water damaged and it can no longer turn on through a power supply. Every app, photo, and text on your phone is no longer accessible, but the hard drive and the phone itself are still intact. As you don’t have the capabilities to fix it yourself, you visit a phone repair expert who can access the hard drive through a special tool, thus restoring the memories and transferring them to a new phone or USB. Now, imagine instead of water damage, the phone was thrown into a fire, and it became completely destroyed. There isn’t any repair expert or technology in the world that could possibly retrieve the phone or the information stored on it, leaving it unsalvageable.
The analogy above isn’t to liken a human life to a phone, but to illustrate how clinical, biological, and info-theoretical death relate to one another, and how info-theoretical death impacts cryonics. A patient suffering a cardiac arrest, who can no longer breathe on their own gets aid from a trained professional who quickly provides CPR to revive them. Someone who is biologically dead can perhaps be saved by future medical experts who can cure the cause of death (even if this is decades or centuries later). On the other hand, a person who has suffered a cardiac arrest, died, and was cremated, has no chance of being revived with modern and future technologies.
By now you might have heard of cryonics. This is the practice of preserving a patient after legal death at cryogenic temperatures (-196°C). This medical procedure puts a person in a state of biostasis, but it must be initiated with as little delay as possible. As is the case with many procedures—timing is everything.
Biostasis is the ability of an organism to tolerate environmental changes without it having adverse reactions to them. By putting patients in biostasis, the death process is paused, and they now have a second chance to receive life-saving treatment in the future (a revival). This is of course contingent on future medical technologies advancing enough to treat the cause of death. Biostasis, therefore, assists in halting info-theoretical death from taking place.
Presently, cryonic companies can’t state exactly when info-theoretical death begins, but as timing is so critical, it impacts the quality of a patient’s cryopreservation. The sooner a standby team can reach a person that has just legally died, the better chances of preserving the brain intact and minimizing info-theoretical death from occurring.
There are ‘ideal’ scenarios for cryopreservation to occur, ensuring the best possible outcome for the cryonics member. A typical ‘ideal’ scenario is a member about to die in a hospice with a standby team notified prior to legal death being pronounced. The minimal time between the pronouncement and the arrival of the team means better-quality preservation for the patient. In most cases though, people die after the worsening of previous conditions so these scenarios aren’t uncommon.
While cryonics experts and standby teams would always prefer to cryopreserve patients in ‘ideal’ circumstances, unforeseen incidents can happen. Variables that can affect cryopreservation include the length of time it takes to get to a patient that may have been declared legally dead for hours or days. The medical team still strives to do their utmost to carry out the best procedure possible, as we don’t know to what extent technology will be able to revive patients in the future.
Another variable that may seem obvious - without a brain or a body, cryopreservation is not possible. Situations like plane crashes or individuals lost at sea where the medical team cannot access the brain or the body, make cryopreservation impossible. Thankfully, however, these scenarios are very rare.
It’s important to note here that it is not the role of Tomorrow Bio to decide who is salvageable and who isn’t—so long as the team has access to a patient’s body and brain, they will do their best to cryopreserve them. Not knowing what future technology will be able to achieve, we do not feel in a position to draw a line.
It should be clear by now that info-theoretical death and the brain are mutually exclusive; what defines a person - their personality, their memories, and what makes them unique, is stored in the brain. Fun fact: when a patient is being cryopreserved, they are stored upside down in specially built cryogenic storage dewars, so that the brain is the last thing to be damaged in case of an emergency. As the brain is of weighted importance, it has caused people to discuss whether cryonics can work with people affected by neurodegenerative diseases.
Neurodegenerative diseases refer to nerve cells in the brain or peripheral nervous system that lose function over time and ultimately die. The most common forms of these are Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and while treatments exist to help relieve some of the physical or mental symptoms, there are no available cures. For some neurodegenerative diseases, parts of the brain have been so severely damaged long before legal death has even occurred. Unfortunately, biostasis doesn’t currently possess regenerative features, so it can’t heal previously harmed cell structures.
Neurodegenerative diseases pose a question: if you can’t retrieve the neural pathways that make up your thoughts, personality, and memories, then who is being preserved? Tomorrow Bio strives to offer all patients the same possibilities of revival. As long as the brain is intact, we believe there is no reason to forgo cryopreservation. Hopefully, at some point down the line, technology can reverse the brain to good health.
It’s believed that high-quality cryopreservation could shorten the length of time needed for a future revival. This is because it lowers the possibility of requiring extremely advanced medical technology in the future.
So, what is the difference between high-quality and low-quality cryopreservation? Many variables come into play, but one of them can be a person’s lifestyle.
When and how we die is not typically in our control, so it’s important to control the controllable. In order for a patient to possibly avoid low-quality cryopreservation, they should think about adopting a healthier lifestyle for a number of reasons.
Any impediment that makes it more difficult for cryoprotectants to reach parts of the brain during perfusion reduces the quality of the preservation received. Adopting some healthy eating habits, engaging in exercise, and getting enough sleep can all help avoid the risk of atherosclerosis. This disease is a result of a plaque build of the inner walls of the arteries. Atherosclerosis increases a patient's risk of blood clotting and can slow the speed at which blood travels from the heart to the fingers and toes, which could lead to a lower-quality cryopreservation experience.
As mentioned above, a person’s death is something that can very rarely be planned. In the case of these unforeseen circumstances, Tomorrow Bio provides an option to add a second beneficiary to a member’s life insurance policy, so if cryopreservation cannot be done, this will receive the death benefit instead.
Nothing is ever certain in life, but something we do know is that there is a 0% chance of a future revival without cryogenic technology. With so many great developments happening over the years, Tomorrow Bio, is known as the fastest-growing human cryopreservation company in Europe, and we are optimistic about what the future holds. Technology is always advancing and we believe that cryopreservation is yet to reach its full potential.
If you are interested in learning more about the exciting research happening at Tomorrow Bio or with our partner EBF just take a look at our online editorial Tomorrow Insights, which is sure to answer all of your questions!