How to Freeze People and Bring Them Back to Life

Doctors in Pittsburgh are beginning the first-ever human trials of "suspended animation" among gunshot victims with potentially fatal injuries.

In the 1992 comedy Encino Man, two California teenagers unearth a frozen caveman while digging a pool in their back yard. With the aid of some space heaters in the garage, he comes back to life, and fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue. 

A human hibernation lasting several millennia is still pretty far-fetched, but the science behind shorter periods of therapeutic hypothermia is becoming ever more real.

Doctors at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh are beginning the first-ever human trials of "suspended animation" among gunshot victims with potentially fatal injuries. In order to buy more time to fix their wounds, doctors will replace all of the patients' blood with a saline solution, which will cool down the body and practically stop cellular activity.

As they're coursing with saline, the patients will be technically dead: They won't breathe, and there will be no brain activity. But the cells will stay alive, working at a much slower pace at the lower temperature. After about two hours, the doctors will re-infuse the patients with blood, and they should come back to life as though they had just taken a brief, frosty nap. The scientists who study this phenomenon have a common refrain: "You're not dead until you're warm and dead."

Scientists have previously performed the procedure on pigs with a 90 percent success rate. In most cases, the animals' hearts began beating again on their own after their blood was replaced. Their physical and mental functioning was unharmed. In 2006, scientists in Boston induced hypothermia and a slowed heart rate in mice by using hydrogen sulphide gas. The mice returned to normal two hours after they began breathing normal air again.

"After we did those experiments, the definition of 'dead' changed," surgeon Peter Rhee at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who led the pig experiment, told the New Scientist. "Every day at work I declare people dead. They have no signs of life, no heartbeat, no brain activity. I sign a piece of paper knowing in my heart that they are not actually dead. I could, right then and there, suspend them. But I have to put them in a body bag. It's frustrating to know there's a solution."

The new procedure, called "emergency preservation and resuscitation," will be attempted on humans only in extreme cases. The patients will have entered the ER with severe blood loss and will have, on average, less than a 7 percent chance of surviving otherwise.

An interstellar ark used for long space flights, for when cryo-sleep really gets going (Rick Guidice/NASA)

Though these will be the first such human clinical trials, several freak accidents have previously revealed how extreme cold can preserve human life. In 1999, Swedish radiologist Anna Bagenholm survived 80 minutes under a layer of ice in freezing water after a skiing accident. Her body temperature plunged to 56.7 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2000, a toddler from Edmonton, Alberta, wandered into the freezing winter wearing nothing but a diaper, and she survived two hours without a heartbeat before coming back to life.

Then there was Janice Goodger, a 64-year-old woman in Duluth, Minnesota who was found frozen and without a pulse on her icy driveway one morning in 2008. She recovered fully in a hospital later.

"The next day, she was doing so well, they wanted to run tests on her," said Mark Roth of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "She got cranky and just went home." 

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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