IN MANY ways, DJ MacLennan considers the monthly payment of £40 which comes out his bank account a typically prudent course of action. "My arrangement is just like a life insurance policy," he told The Scotsman yesterday. "There's people who pay out £60 to £70 a month on their (life] policies. It's just the same as that."
What is markedly different, however, is the fate that awaits Mr MacLennan upon his death. He will not be laid in the ground, nor have his remains cremated. Instead, his brain will be cryonically preserved in the hope that, one day, he will again experience life.
The 36-year-old from Skye is one of a handful of Britons to sign up with the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an American organisation which vows that, medical advances permitting, science will find a way of curing whatever killed their "patients".
The idea was first mooted in 1964, when Robert Ettinger, a US physics teacher, published The Prospect of Immortality, which predicted that death might not be irreversible; that it was part of a series of cycles of life. The idea confronts the very heart of human nature head-on: whereas mortality was once a predestined biological fact, a small band of scientists now regard it as a challenge to be overcome.
As the science stands, when a cryonics client dies, their body will be filled with a special fluid similar to anti-freeze, before it is plunged into a bath of iced water. It is then wrapped in polythene, submerged in alcohol and lowered into 120kg of ice in an insulated fibreglass box, before being airlifted to Alcor's facilities in the scorching deserts of Phoenix, Arizona, where it is frozen in capsules of liquid nitrogen.
Mr MacLennan has not opted to have his whole body frozen, a process which costs around 75,000. Instead, only his brain will be preserved – a method known as neuropreservation – for around 40,000. He hopes that in some way he will be able to inhabit a new body, or his consciousness will be loaded into a new being, in the same way as we upload files on to a computer.
The course these scientists are navigating is a slow and arduous one. They have yet to freeze and revive a mammal, let alone a human being or a brain. If there is to be another great breakthrough in the field, it must come in the cryopreservation techniques.
At present, the process whereby bodies are frozen – to a temperature of –320F (about –195C) – causes phenomena known as "acoustic fracturing events". Simply put, the brain and other internal organs audibly crack and fracture. Much in the same way ice-cream placed in a freezer develops ice crystals, so such crystals accumulate around the inside of a human body.
A relatively new technique, known as vitrification, allows blood to be replaced with a cocktail of chemicals resembling anti-freeze – known as cryoprotectant fluid – using a machine like the cardio-pulmonary bypass devices found in hospitals. This is believed to offer greater protection to the internal organs. However, the cryoprotectants are toxic, and the possible danger they pose has yet to be fully grasped.
Legal and ethical hurdles also remain – including the fact that it is illegal to vitrify someone while, medically speaking, they remain alive. Only when a client's heart stops beating and they are declared dead can the cryonics work begin. And it must commence quickly, lest ischaemic injury – lack of bloodflow – to the brain and other tissues occurs.
Dr Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge-educated biomedical gerontologist and the author of Ending Aging, said funding issues mean scientists in the field are hindered.
"It's mainly private companies who invest," he says. "A lot of governments believe it is a little too weird to invest in, despite the fact, scientifically, that is far from the case. Cryonics can help us learn how preserve organs, an immensely important area.
"Progress is being made, however, and scientists are learning how to preserve people carefully without damage. I know of work involves a liquid being used to maintain the oxygen levels in someone who has recently died, which will prevent decay."
Mr MacLennan, who is a partner and practice manager with the architectural firm Dualchas, is one of a select band. Alcor, a non-profit organisation, has only 842 members, 79 of whom are already in cryopreservation. Around 70 people in the UK have signed up with either Alcor or the Cryonics Institute, which is based in Michigan. Each client wears a small tag engraved with contact numbers for the cryonicists.
If necessary, Mr MacLennan says he will relocate to Phoenix so that Alcor's staff can start the process as soon as possible after his death, but he believes by the time he is of pensionable age the network of facilities may have spread to the north of Scotland. Already, there is a centre based in the south of England.
"At the moment, it's still unclear how to bring the consciousness of a human brain back, but it's too precious to simply waste, and science in the field is improving," he says.
"Vitrification was developed recently," he adds. "It may take nano-technology, using atoms as building blocks, to make the breakthrough, but no-one knows just yet."
Mr MacLennan points out it is not only the scientific unknowns that stand in the way. The standing of cryonics may fall out of favour, or, he suggests, "the firm may go bust, or there might be an earthquake, or terrorists could destroy the centre in protest. There are a whole number of practical issues."
At the beginning of the 21st century, there exist a few, marvellous developments, but the great question of how to bring the dead back to life remains unanswered.
Mr MacLennan is adamant he has made the right choice: "As Alcor say, being frozen at –320F and stored in a stainless steel vat is the second-worst thing that can happen to you."
INVESTING FOR THE TRULY LONG-TERM
THEY say that when you go, you can't take it with you – but cryonics may soon render this old adage redundant. Though it has still a long way to go before successfully reviving a dead human being, the burgeoning science of cryonics has captivated growing numbers of the wealthy, who believe that in time they will be able to enjoy their fortunes from beyond the grave.
The process of being frozen itself requires considerable sums of money, with around 75,000 for a full body, and 40,000 for a brain. The pay-off, though, could be incalculable.
David Pizer, a former vice-president of cryonics firm Alcor, and a holiday-resort owner in Arizona, has made arrangements to be frozen along with his wife and their favourite pet dogs. He has invested his fortune, which is equivalent to about 5 million, in a scheme known as a personal revival trust, which name the deceased as beneficiaries. He believes that if, and when, he comes back to life his investment will have grown dramatically.
Jakob Canady, a Floridan real estate investor who died four years ago, left his millions in a similar trust, with instructions they be paid out when his "human remains are revived and restored to life". But his plans are at the centre of a family dispute, with his daughters contesting the arrangements.
Such trusts are legal in 20 US states. Similar trusts exist in the tax haven of Liechtenstein.