Wishing to serve his country in the 1940s, Steve Rogers volunteers to undergo an experiment that will make him a super soldier. After the experiment is a success, Rogers, code named Captain America, is sent to defeat the Skull and deactivate a missile aimed at the White House. While tied to the weapon in question, Captain America diverts it into Alaskan waters, where he remains frozen for 50 years. Hollywood has played on the idea or cryonics and the benefits of cold storage for decades because of the promise it offers—an extended lifespan. While suspended animation is not possible for humans yet, therapeutic hypothermia is a rapidly evolving procedure that the medical community continues to investigate.
Cryogenics vs Cryonics
Cryogenics is the study of the behavior and production of materials at low temperatures. The term originates from the Greek words kryos and genic, which mean “frost” and “to produce.” While scientists have not established when refrigeration ends and cryogenics begin, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology states that cryogenics generally refers to temperatures below -150°C. An example of substance that undergoes cryogenics is liquid nitrogen, as the extremely cold temperatures cause the gas to convert into a liquid.
Cryonics is the preservation of individuals at low temperatures when contemporary medicine cannot sustain them. Some medical professionals perform cryonics procedures minutes after a patient is legally dead with the hope that they can resuscitate and restore an individual’s health in the future. Those who specialize in cryonics believe that the brain does not have to be consciously active for it to retain memories or survive. During a cryopreservation procedure, which uses sophisticated climate control solutions, an individual undergoes temperatures below -130°C. With present technologies, the cryopreservation of humans is not reversible.
The Truth behind Cold Storage for Hollywood Movies
The ability to go into a deep sleep to pass great lengths of time is attractive, particularly in regards to space travel or extending an individual’s life. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that the lowest temperature that an individual can achieve is absolute zero, which is when molecules are in the lowest yet finite energy state. Absolute zero is impossible to reach because input power requirements are too great. However, scientists can achieve temperatures that are within a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero.
One of the greatest drawbacks of cryonics is that 60% of the human body is comprised of water. When water freezes, it expands, destroying cells in the body. For this reason, scientists may employ vitrification or use a cryoprotectant in an attempt to prevent ice damage. What the specialists lack is the technology to regenerate or repair damaged or diseased tissues. A body that experiences hypothermia or a state of suspended animation is also at risk of muscle atrophy, bone loss, intracranial pressure and a loss of cognitive function.
The Benefits of Cold Storage for Humans
Therapeutic hypothermia, which only lowers the body’s temperature 5°F to 10°F, is a proven treatment for traumatic injuries. Presently, patients can undergo therapeutic hypothermia for up to 14 days. Humans have undergone multiple therapeutic hypothermia induction cycles with no long- and short-term detrimental effects. When NASA commissioned a study on human stasis, SpaceWorks engineers found that the idea could be the key to making ships smaller and lighter because the astronauts’ metabolisms would slow, reducing the need for consumables by up to 70 percent. The period of hibernation may also reduce the emotional stress that astronauts feel during long trips.
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