• 11.16.11

Brain Freeze: Chilling Trauma Patients For A New Lease On Life

Get shot in Pittsburgh these days and you very well might get pumped full of near-freezing water to buy doctors more time to save you.

Remember when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back only to be revived in Return of the Jedi? The idea that someone could be put in “suspended animation,” bringing their life processes to a stop without killing them, has been a sci-fi staple for decades, and has intrigued would-be death cheaters like Walt Disney and Ted Williams. Now it’s coming to Pittsburgh.


Beginning next year, a team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center will put some patients who end up in the trauma center with gunshot or stab wounds in a deep chill, a process called Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation. Cooling the body slows down the metabolic processes of the brain and other organs. The Pittsburgh team hopes that will give surgeons more time to work before blood loss causes massive brain damage.

Samuel Tisherman, a University of Pittsburgh critical care specialist and lead researcher for the study, says a patient who’s losing lots of blood will normally suffer brain damage within four or five minutes. “If you can cool the brain down fast enough,” however, “you could buy 20 minutes, 40 minutes, maybe up to an hour.”

Patients in cardiac arrest are already cooled to 90 degrees in many hospitals, but this experiment is much more extreme. The Pittsburgh team will cool the body to temperatures as low as 50 degrees–essentially giving them an intense case of hypothermia–by injecting them with an ice-cold solution. Tisherman and his team have only tested this technique on pigs and dogs so far, but the results have been promising.

But it’s hard to ask someone suffering cardiac arrest due to trauma for their consent to pump them full of ice water. Instead, the hospital just has to let residents know that if they get shot and go to the hospital, they might be candidates for this experimental treatment. To do that, the University of Pittsburgh is launching a public awareness campaign with an amusingly dry YouTube video, signs on city buses, and two town hall meetings.

The study is being funded by the Defense Department. If the technique works in Pittsburgh, maybe we’ll see it on the battlefield before long.