Using a technique developed three years ago, researchers from MIT and 21st Century Medicine have shown that it’s possible to preserve the microscopic structures contained within a large mammalian brain. The breakthrough means scientists now have the means to store and study samples of the human brain over longer timescales – but the method could eventually, maybe, be used to resurrect the dead.
An electron micrograph of the white matter region in an ASC-preserved region of a pig’s brain. Photo: Brain Preservation Foundation
Back in 2015, we reported on how the same team, led by Robert McIntyre from MIT and Greg Fahy from 21st Century Medicine, was awarded the $US26,735 ($33,947) Small Mammal Brain Preservation Prize, which is run by the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF), a not-for-profit with the goal of furthering research in brain preservation.
In this case, the “small mammal brain” belonged to a rabbit, but a scaled-up version of the same technique has now been used to preserve a pig’s brain, an accomplishment that has earned the team – you guessed it – the BPF’s Large Mammal Brain Preservation Prize, which carries a purse of $US80,000 ($101,582).
Sounds like an incremental improvement, but this latest step opens the door to human-specific medical applications, like the ability to study 3D sections of the human brain in exquisite detail. More conceptually, the technique could be used for long-term human biostasis. And in fact, McIntyre is now running with this possibility, and has cofounded a new company called Nectome with this stated mission:
to preserve your brain well enough to keep all its memories intact: from that great chapter of your favourite book to the feeling of cold winter air, baking an apple pie, or having dinner with your friends and family. We believe that within the current century it will be feasible to digitize this information and use it to recreate your consciousness.
We’re still a long way from uploading our brains into a computer (something that may never happen), but if it ever becomes a reality, we may look back on pioneering efforts such as these. As the BPF stated in an accompanying press release, this brain preservation technique, called Aldehyde-Stabilised Cryopreservation (ASC), would enable patients – that is, preserved brains in cryostorage – to “safely wait out those centuries” required to develop mind-uploading technologies. “For now, neuroscience is actively exploring the plausibility of mind uploading through ongoing studies of the physical basis of memory, and through development of large-scale neural simulations and tools to map connectomes,” writes the BPF. “This Prize win should shine a spotlight on such neuroscience research, underscoring its importance to humanity.”
Details of ASC were published in the science journal Cryobiology and independently verified by neuroscientists Kenneth Hayworth and Sebastian Seung, so this isn’t some idle transhumanist fantasy. The process involves immersing a mammalian brain with a chemical stabiliser (a glutaraldehyde-based fixative) and cryoprotectants (to prevent damage while cooling), then bringing it down to -135C for long-term storage. In the event that scientists want to study the preserved brain, either a few months or a few centuries from now, all they have to do is warm the brain and remove the cryopreservants. The end result is not a biological substance, but a plastic-like object that still (theoretically) contains all of the information that was packed inside the brain at the moment of death.
It’s for this reason that the technique is being heralded as a new form of cryonics. But unlike conventional cryonics, where an entire body or head is preserved in a vat of liquid nitrogen, the ASC technique makes no effort to preserve biological function. Instead, the goal is to prevent “information theoretic brain death”, whereby the “stuff” that’s needed to restore a person’s personality and memories remains intact. Conceivably, slices of these preserved brains could be digitised and reconfigured in a computer to reconstruct a person’s connectome – the totality of a brain’s specific internal wirings.
As reported in MIT Technology Review, McIntyre, along with business partner Michael McCanna, will describe Nectome’s brain preservation system next week at Y Combinator’s Demo Day in Mountain View, California. The Nectome team has also spoken to lawyers about California’s End of Life Option Act, which makes doctor-assisted death permissible for terminally ill patients; the idea here is that the integrity of a brain preservation will work best when a patient is euthanised before a terminal illness does damage to the body and (especially) the brain. Nectome isn’t preserving brains for clients yet, but 25 people have already been added to the company’s waiting list, reports MIT Technology Review.
For those of you thinking this is a path towards immortality, you may be in for a profound disappointment. Technical hurdles aside, the ASC approach doesn’t guarantee a continuity of consciousness. As mentioned, this is a form of destructive preservation, where biological matter is basically transmutated into a temporary storage device. While your memories and personality stand a chance of revival, your seat of consciousness will likely be obliterated for all time. Brain preservation in this manner is thus a form of suicide, but with knowledge that a digital “copy” of you may live to see another day.
But this is just my opinion – we don’t yet know how consciousness works, so it’s still impossible to know.