The Case for Neuropreservation

by Brian Wilson

This article is intended both as a general essay on the merits of neuropreservation, and as a rebuttal to various points raised in Michael B. O’Neal’s article, “The Case for Whole Body Suspension” (Cryonics, July, 1990).

Neuropreservation, quite simply, is low temperature preservation of the brain of a terminal patient. All efforts in neuropreservation are devoted to the singular purpose of preserving the brain, and only the brain, in the best possible condition allowed by present technology. The disposition of other tissue only matters inasmuch it impacts upon the condition of the brain.

Now, it just happens that the least damaging way to preserve a brain is to leave it enclosed within its protective cranium. In other words, the best way to preserve a person’s brain is to preserve their whole head. Unfortunately it is at this point that most people don’t want to hear any more about neuropreservation.

Medicine is not always pretty. There are surgical procedures within conventional medicine that make neuropreservation aesthetically tame by comparison. Patients and their families consent to such procedures because they know that they offer the best chance for a return to wholeness and health. Similarly, the goal of neuropreservation is to offer a terminal patient the best possible chance for a return to wholeness and health.

Isolation of the brain (with the head) is merely one phase of a process which must be viewed in its entirety. Like conventional surgery, this process is to end with the patient returned to wholeness. Alcor member Charles Hartman has in fact long described cryonics as the “long operation.”

Will it be more difficult to restore neuropreservation patients to health than whole body patients? I think not. In fact the reverse may be true.

It is important to realize that growth of whole bodies from scratch is an established “technology.” It has existed in nature for hundreds of millions of years. It is how we all got to be here. The enormously complex program for growing whole human bodies from a single cell is already written in our genes. Future medical regrowth of bodies will involve modifying this program to allow victims of severe trauma to regrow a new body around their brain, perhaps starting with only a single cell on the surface of the brain in-vitro.

Both whole body and neuro patients will require molecular repair of the brain. However, whole body patients will also require molecular repair of every other organ and tissue of the body. These repairs will involve reversing aging, ischemic injury, and cryopreservation injury. Such repair processes do not exist in nature, and will have to be custom-designed for tissues spanning a vast range of histology and function. It seems much easier to simply grow a new young body using natural processes (in-vitro, of course) rather than designing a host of radical new repairs from the ground up.

In his article, Michael B. O’Neal expresses concern that a new body might not feel the same as the old one. Yet surely this is a problem common to both neuro and whole body patients alike: Having a diseased, aged body replaced in a subjective instant by a young healthy body (either repaired or replaced) is definitely going to feel strange. This is something all cryonics patients will have to deal with.

What about the difficulties of “interfacing” a new body with a patient’s brain? These could not be anything so crude as immunological incompatibility (a trivial issue from the standpoint of nanotechnology). A more likely problem could be joining the axons of the brain stem to the right muscles of the body. These connections might not be completely genetically determined. Various motor skills, such as walking or playing the piano, might have to be relearned. I think that would be the worst possible case.

Is whole body preservation, then, a more prudent, conservative stance? Not necessarily. The future cannot help us if we do not get there. Dollar for dollar, a neuropatient is ten times as secure as a whole body patient. This is a basic consequence of volume ratios: a neuropatient requires one tenth the liquid nitrogen, and one tenth the storage space, of a whole body patient. Even if a person can afford whole body preservation, the same funding level will carry them much further as a neuropatient. Everyone should remember that Alcor’s emergency conversion to neuropreservation takes effect only after severe depletion of funding.

Of course, whether a neuro patient is literally ten times safer than a whole body patient with the same funding level depends on the operating policies of the cryonics organization. However, if a cryonics organization does not translate better funding vs. maintenance cost ratios into better security, serious questions should be asked of that organization. Such a situation would imply unfair subsidization of some members by other members.

To summarize: Neuropreservation offers a tenfold increase in preservation security without apparent compromise of revival chances. I believe this logic underlies the decision of most Alcor members, including myself, who have chosen neuropreservation.