Many have doubtless heard the tales of individuals cryogenically preserving their bodies so they can be thawed out and brought back to life years later. Until recently, that has been the stuff of science fiction and pipe dreams, but now it just became a bit more real.
Researchers have successfully cryogenically preserved a rabbit brain and then thawed it out...in tact. While this does not sound like a big deal, the implications are huge.
The scientists from 21st Century Medicine preserved the rabbit brain for more than two days. They were then able to thaw it out and keep the cells and connections in tact. While this does not mean the brain can be placed back into a rabbit and have it hop on its merry way, it does pave the way for cryogenic research involving more larger, more medically useful, organisms. The team won the Brain Preservation Prize for Small Mammals for their work. According to the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) announcement:
It is the first demonstration that near perfect, long-term structural preservation of an intact mammalian brain is achievable.
The delicate work of cryogenically preserving a brain in tact is easily derailed by the formation of ice crystals. Think about how sharp and jagged ice crystals can be when they form in ice cream, now imagine what that can do to delicate brain tissue. The way the researchers prevented the build up of ice crystals was to use a chemical process called vitrification. This essentially means they used chemicals to turn the brain into a form of glass. Dr. Kenneth Hayworth, the president of resident of BPF, used those terms to describe the contrast between the frozen and then thawed brain in the formal award announcement:
Every neuron and synapse looks beautifully preserved across the entire brain. Simply amazing given that I held in my hand this very same brain when it was vitrified glassy solid… This is not your father’s cryonics.
The brain was stored at -135ºC (-211ºF) for what is described as an "extended period of time". It was then thawed, cut into thin slices, and studied under a microscope. The examination revealed that no just cells, but synapses and neurons were all almost flawlessly preserved. The implications of this are staggering. Since it is within these synapses that our memories are stored some have suggested that this research paves the way for memories being uploaded into an external system. While this is all speculation, the first step has been taken: science has found a way to preserve the infrastructure.