The dream of everlasting life has been alluring humanity since the dawn of time. A hidden desire, the result of the consciousness of death that anguish our thoughts. There are trace of it in the literary works of antiquity, when they thought that immortality was an exclusive prerogative of gods and was eternity through heroic deeds. The Homeric hero Achilles, having to choose between a short but legendary life and a long one but destined to be forgotten, had no doubts: it is better to die young and be remembered forever. Christianity was the first one to talk about “the resurrection of the flesh” putting it off, however, to “the last day”, when Jesus will come back on earth to judge mankind and open the gates of the kingdom of God to those who deserve it. According to the gospel, eternal life exists, but not as a continuation of our earthly existence and, therefore, does not exclude the inevitable physical death. Too little, evidently; especially for those who, despite being believers, cannot live with the uncertainty of what comes “after”.
Thus, over the centuries, alchemists and scientists have been looking for the Elixir, a cure capable of making us invulnerable to the natural course of time. We switched from dangerous magical rituals to increasingly extensive research on the human body. Literature and cinema have been able to describe this dream, offering us imperishable masterpieces. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray and Russell Mulcahy Highlander. In all of them melancholy can be felt. What is the point of living forever? This is the underlying question, if everything that has made us happy (family, friends, love and so on) is destined to disappear?
Apparently scholars who are working on techniques to prolong survival, such as hibernation (technically called criostasis) do not ask themselves this kind of questions. The specialized magazine Cryobioology recently published the results of a research which might pave the way for ambitious projects, including the “cryopreservation” of human beings. It is an experiment led by Robert McIntyre from the company 21st Century Medicine who froze and later thawed a rabbit brain which did not suffer any damage. The project was completed after 5 years of attempts and won the Brain Preservation Foundation award.
To prevent damaging the brain and neurons because of the ice crystals which appear when traditional freezing methods are used, the scientists have used vitrification, using cryoprotectant substances: the small mammal organ was sent down to -211 degrees Fahrenheit (-135° C) and brain synapses, cell membranes, and intracellular structures remained intact after it was thawed. They used a substance called glutaraldehyde, which has helped them achieve this goal. Yet, being toxic, it will have to be replaced with non-harmful molecules. The project feeds the hope of developing a safe and effective method of human hibernation, to “cryopreserve” terminally ill patients, for instance, until an effective treatment will be available for their illness. A noble purpose, but is likely to become an insult to nature. It ignores a basic principle: awareness of the end is the engine that, has pushed us to self-improve over the millennia. In a way, we may say that death is what makes us human.