Ever since cryonics was first conceived of 50 years ago, people have been waiting for scientific proof that it might actually work. Sure, scientists have been able to indefinitely cryopreserve human embryos for the past 30 years. But what about something with memories and an identity?
Researchers have never proven they could revive an organism with its mind intact… until now:
From the Abstract:
Can memory be retained after cryopreservation? […] Our results in testing memory retention after cryopreservation show that the mechanisms that regulate the odorant imprinting (a form of long-term memory) in C. elegans have not been modified by the process of vitrification or by slow freezing.
That’s amazing! Skeptics previous had room to complain that there was no scientific proof that memories or identity could survive cryonics. But that room is gone.
It’s the result I expected. But it’s still fantastic to see this experiment carried out and published.
Of course, not all studies check out. And when I first got my hands on the full journal article… I was a bit worried. In my experience, most studies, especially exciting studies, are some combination of: poorly designed, poorly controlled, under-powered, and subsequently mined for spurious “significant” results.
But my skepticism quickly turned to delight: Experimental endpoints were well-defined prior to measurement. Animal handling was done according to well-establish review-article documented methods. Materials were specified in enough detail to allow for widespread replication. A reported sub-result in the study on the survivability advantages of the SafeSpeed fast freezing/thawing method provides valuable replication of another exciting result that would have been scientifically notable even on its own. Appendices show how robust the measurements really were. It’s as though the researchers knew the standard complaints of science journalists and actually bothered to spend the extra hour or two planning a good study. So their results went from “standard and terrible” to “utterly world-class”. I know I keep telling scientists they should design and carry out their studies correctly. But it’s still breathtaking to see it done, even once.
The nematodes in this study clearly remembered what they learned prior to cryopreservation. The SafeSpeed fast freezing/thawing allowed for ~100% survivability. And the nematodes were cryopreserved for a full 2 weeks in the middle of their life. By rough analogy, this would be like cryopreserving a 35 year old human for 65 years, and then watching them be revived unharmed with all their memories and going on to live another 35 years. You know, something that would allow a human to live further into the future than anyone, ever in history.
Additionally, several experts in the field who I heard back from agreed that this was a “quite well-designed and well-executed study, and the results leave little doubt that long-term memory, at least as represented by olfactory imprinting in C. elegans, survives freezing with no detectable impairment.” They also felt similarly to me in the sense that even though “it’s an expected result”, it was still “good to see it in a journal publication”.
So scientists have proven that minds can be cryopreserved and successfully revived — with their memories intact. It’s been peer-reviewed and published in a good journal. And experts from the field who weren’t involved in the study agree the result looks impressive.
It may have only been nematodes, but it’s still a big deal.
Cryonics just went from something you could believe in based on a series of good hand-wavy arguments about how ice damage and protein cross-linking aren’t really that bad (plus it would take magic for all of your memories to be instantly erased the second your heart stops beating)… to something you can believe in because science demonstrates that it works. That’s a serious upgrade. I’m definitely pleased to see cryonics crossing over from scientific theory to scientific fact.