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Frozen in time: Oregon firm preserves bodies, brains in hopes that science catches up

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jordan Sparks, here in his Salem laboratory, is bringing cryopreservation to Oregon. His Oregon Cryonics has begun preserving the brains of clients who hope to someday live again.Jordan Sparks knows he’s got a problem with the three human brains in his office refrigerator — he’s been told that by colleagues. He also knows those brains and their uncertain state of decay are evidence of the cutting-edge science to which he has decided to devote much of his life and personal fortune.

Sparks is the founder of Oregon Cryonics — the latest facility in the country to offer clients a potential piece of immortality. For about $200,000, Salem's Oregon Cryonics promises to prepare and keep your body frozen at 320 degrees below zero for eternity, or until science has figured out a way to bring you back to life — in some form.

Putting an entire body in a liquid nitrogen chamber is expensive, so for those who can’t afford the $200,000, clients can have their brains — sometimes in their heads, sometimes removed — frozen and stored, for $25,000.

Until recently, there were only two cryonics facilities in the country freezing people or their brains, the Cryonics Institute in Detroit and Alcor Life Extension in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Oregon Cryonics has signed up 10 clients to have either their bodies or their brains preserved and frozen after they die. Its operating model also has promised no small bit of controversy.

Nationally, hundreds of people now exist in a state of cryopreservation. Baseball great Ted Williams’ brain is in cryo. Nearly 1,000 people have prepaid memberships that will allow them or their brains to be cryogenically frozen until some time in the future, when they believe they can be brought back to life in real or digital form.

The industry appears to be gradually gaining adherents, especially among young men who embrace technology. Sparks says that’s because, in an increasingly digital world, people are beginning to see that their minds are basically their personhood, and that those minds are valuable.

“It’s becoming more and more obvious to people that as society becomes a bit smarter, we don’t need the rest of the body. The brain is where it’s at,” he says.

Simulating brains

Sparks is a successful dentist and entrepreneur who says his startup is filling an industry niche — lower-cost cryo for people willing to have just their brains preserved. He’s banking on technology — the idea that brain scanning will someday become sophisticated enough to map an entire brain and all its neural circuits. Then the brains that have been cryopreserved can be thawed, mapped and digitally downloaded. The people who once lived with those brains might live again, as software.

“The mind would be in a computer,” Sparks says. “Virtual reality will be extremely rich and complex. You would feel like you are in a body.”

Or, those brains could be connected to a robot body in the future, or even to a second human body.

Sparks says his real mission is to advance the science of cryonics. Currently, he says, there are few medically trained people working at cryonics institutes. He recognizes the science is considered “weird.” Even his wife objects to his having signed up for preservation after he dies.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sparks displays a liquid nitrogen chamber which can keep brains frozen at minus 320 Fahrenheit .

Going on the cheap

But those three brains in his office refrigerator may not be helping his cause. The clients — one a woman who died of lung cancer, one a man who was dead two weeks before his brain was removed from his body and placed in a preservative solution, and one a 58-year-old man whose body already had begun to decay — didn’t have the money to put in trust so that their cryonically frozen state could be guaranteed for 100 years or more. So Sparks offered to use cryo chemicals to preserve their brains as best he could, and then to store the brains in boxes in his refrigerator.

Sparks recognizes that deterioration probably has taken place in all three brains. “We say right on our website that this is terrible,” he says. Yet still worth doing, he’s convinced. It’s possible, he says, that in some future century, brain repairs we can’t now imagine will be available.

What Oregon Cryonics has done with those three brains is probably defensible, says Anders Sandberg, a bioethicist at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford in England.

“This state is still better than being irrevocably dead, even though it might be worse than a proper preservation,” Sandberg says.

Worth a chance?

Sandberg calls cryonics “a rational gamble,” comparable to a dying cancer patient asking for a radical, unproven treatment. “In this case the half-suspension is like taking the gamble but with lower odds,” he says.

Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, president of the national Brain Preservation Foundation, strongly disagrees. Hayworth, a cryonics supporter, says people shouldn’t be getting frozen until science has shown there may be a way to bring them, or their minds, back. And even then, he says, the decision to start freezing people or their brains should be made when the scientific and medical community gives the go-ahead.

Hayworth’s foundation offered a $26,000 prize that finally was awarded last week to a California lab that was able to cryonically freeze a rabbit’s brain and thaw it out without apparent damage to any of the neural connections. That’s a huge step forward for cryonics, Hayworth says, but not nearly enough to justify freezing human brains yet.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Cryonics complex cooling system borrowed from machinery used in hospital heart bypass operations but uses liquid nitrogen.

Advancing science?

“That is stupid and idiotic, and probably unethical,” Hayworth says of the refrigerated brains at Oregon Cryonics. “If this was a new type of heart surgery, would we allow this?”

The body and brain preservation taking place at all cryonics facilities is setting back critical science that needs to be done, in Hayworth’s view. And it may explain why those physicians Sparks would like to see get involved in cryonics aren’t interested.

“That ruins the whole field,” Hayworth says of premature cryonics. “All of that has produced a climate within the scientific community that says anybody who touches that stuff, their careers are ruined. ... By jumping the gun, they have taken what could have been a legitimate scientific and medical field and turned it into a joke.”

Sparks remains undeterred. He believes history will prove correct his decision to preserve brains now as well as he can.

“I think the information in the human mind is extremely valuable and worth saving for anybody,” he says. “Would you rather survive or die? It’s as simple as that. ... Death is not a moment, it’s a transition.”


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland neuroscientist Chana Phaedra, right, and business partner Aschwin de Wolf, are signed up to be cryonically frozen, and Phaedra says she's signing up little Eloise as well.

Infant, mom sign up to be preserved

Six-week-old Eloise Wells is about to be signed up for cryopreservation, according to her mother, Southeast Portland resident Chana Phaedra.

Phaedra moved to Portland in 2008. She’s a neuroscientist who did research at Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension for two and a half years. She’s already taken out a membership at Alcor that will pay for her own cryopreservation — whole body as opposed to brain preservation. She simply considers herself forward- looking.

“I think cryonicists are a group of people with that special pioneer spirit that people in the past had — Americans pushing their way west, people migrating across continents. It is a basic human trait that some of us have more than others, and cryonicists are the next iteration,” Phaedra says.

Phaedra has hosted Portland meetings for people with an interest in cryopreservation. She says she was part of a small “trans-humanist” Portland group that started to meet but fell apart, even though Oregon is among the states where interest in cryonics is high.

Phaedra and Aschwin de Wolf have opened a Northeast Portland lab called Advanced Neural Biosciences. There, among other things, they research the best methods for delivering cryo protectant chemicals prior to freezing. Before moving to Portland, de Wolf worked for a Florida firm called Suspended Animation that provides services to cryonics companies.

De Wolf says their work, which fundamentally involves protecting the brain from deter-ioration once its blood flow has been cut off, could have applications in non-cryo areas such as organ banking as well.

De Wolf also has signed up for full-body cryopreservation. He guesses that in 75 years technology will have reached a point where he can be brought back, with techniques to repair molecular damage that took place while he was frozen.

Fledgling Oregon Cryonics in Salem would seem to be a natural choice for the eventual preservation of Phaedra and de Wolf, since every minute counts in preserving the body after death if cellular decay is to be minimized. But both say they currently are committed to being preserved at Alcor in Arizona, and leaving open the possibility of switching over to Oregon Cryonics at some point.

Both say they are concerned with the less than state-of-the-art preservation methods Oregon Cryonics has been willing to employ — specifically those three chemically fixed brains in a refrigerator (see main story). In addition, de Wolf points out that in the past, cryo labs have shut down their operations and abandoned clients who were in cryo storage. The lesson there, de Wolf says, is that cryonics labs need to be well-established and accept only clients who can fully fund their treatment and preservation up front.

“Some people say something is better than nothing, but I think that’s not a good principle for cryonics,” de Wolf says.


Pre-paid cryopreservation memberships with Alcor Life Extension

1 California 308

2 Arizona 75

3 Florida 75

4 Texas 60

5 New York 42

6 Massachusetts 33

7 Washington 32

8 Pennsylvania 25

9 Illinois 24

10/11 Oregon and Nevada 21


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Luke Parrish was raised in a creationist home, but belief in science and technology has him signing up for cryopreservation rather than burial.

Religion, tech views behind cryo choices

Luke Parrish grew up in a Pentecostal creationist household, yet by the age of 10 he already was intrigued by the idea of cryopreserving his brain after he died. The part of him that was raised to believe that every word of the Bible is true and that heaven and hell await fought for awhile with an alternative world view that eventually prevailed.

Parrish, 31, has signed on with Oregon Cryonics to have his brain preserved after he dies. His wife has signed on as well.

“I think I had an optimistic and futuristic mind-set ... a belief that technology could be used for good, and we have a destiny of progress,” says Parrish, who moved to Salem from Idaho to work at Oregon Cryonics.

He’s debated with people who doubt the technology will ever emerge to bring him back to life. “To me, it’s like they’re blind,” Parrish says. “They can’t see what’s obvious, that technology is something that improves.”

Mathew Sullivan has been in love with science and futurism since he was 5 years old and dreaming of becoming an astronaut. At 10 or 11 years of age, he says, he told his family he felt he had been born before he was supposed to be born.

“It wasn’t a metaphysical statement,” Sullivan says. “A lot of cryonicists, around that age, you’ll hear they were fearful of death. I recognized how primitive society was.”

Sullivan worked at industry giant Alcor Life Extension in Arizona before joining Jordan Sparks at Oregon Cryonics, where he devises and assembles the firm’s cryopreservation equipment. Oregon Cryonics founder Sparks says Sullivan’s design for the company’s chiller equipment is innovative. Sullivan says he redesigned systems used in hospitals for heart bypass patients to work using liquid nitrogen.

Does he enjoy working on equipment intended to freeze people for centuries? “I think it’s like hanging out in the Wright Brothers’ garage before the invention of flight,” Sullivan says.

Cryonics 101

Cryonics industry experts say that ideally, body or brain preservation should start within 15 minutes of death to minimize cellular deterioration. Cryonics teams are usually bedside when clients die and the patient is put into an ice bath to begin cooling.

In the operating room, cryopreservatives are pumped into the bloodstream of the client to keep cell structure intact during cooling. The goal is to vitrify the body or brain with a minimum of ice crystal formation, since the crystals will damage brain cells. But an excess of cryopreservatives can become toxic and destroy cells.

The preserved body or brain enters a liquid nitrogen chamber for long-term storage at 320 degrees below zero only after the vitrification process has turned cells into a glasslike substance.