Can The Future Of Brain Preservation Help Us Live Forever?
Imagine if we had the ability to store the contents of our brains before we die, in the same way we backup a computer hard drive, so our identities are never lost. Then imagine if that stored information could later be uploaded to a host, like a robot or avatar, or a new indestructible semi-biological body. Humans would essentially become immortal.
Though it sounds like a reality reserved for science fiction, scientists at the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) are trying to bring this futuristic concept to life. For the last six years, they’ve been working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions, and consciousness in the hopes of eventually giving humans a means to avoid death and reach the distant future.
Ken Hayworth is a neuroscientist and the president of BPF, and he dreams of a future where high-quality brain preservation prior to death is possible. Hayworth was initially interested in cryonics, the process of putting someone in suspended animation or lowering a person’s body temperature to avoid the passage of time, but over the years, he became frustrated with the lack of evidence on how well the brain is preserved using this technique. “Freezing people destroys tissue, including brain tissue,” Hayworth explains. “Even though people are selling this as a product, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the brain’s neural circuitry is being preserved.”
Cryonics companies have never demonstrated success in an animal model, and to date, there’s no scientific proof that their methods and procedures are preserving ultrastructure, the fine structure within a cell that can be seen under high magnification with an electron microscope, across the entire brain. Deep-freezing can cause dehydration and breakdown of cells, quite the opposite of preservation. Yet despite a proven scientific model, cryonics companies started offering their product to the public.
Hayworth and his colleagues launched the Brain Preservation Foundation in 2010 in response to the lack of scientific evidence in the cryonics industry; to open a constructive channel of conversation between the scientific and medical communities, skeptics, politicians, and even the corporations currently cashing in on the unproven theory of cryonics; and to bring all sides back together in favor of science. The BPF is challenging the cryonics industry by testing other ways to preserve a brain, including chemical preservation of human brains, a scientific technique that appears capable of preserving the structural details of synaptic connectivity that could last unchanged for centuries, or until mind-uploading, the next step in the process, becomes a reality.
To level the playing field and keep the focus on research, BPF has ponied up a $100,000 challenge prize for “the first individual or team to rigorously demonstrate a surgical technique capable of inexpensively and completely preserving an entire human brain for long-term (>100 years) storage with such fidelity that the structure of every neuronal process and every synaptic connection remains intact and traceable using today’s electron microscopic (EM) imaging techniques.” Synapses are found at the end of neurons, and information from one neuron flows to another neuron across a synapse; this is a critical part of the nervous system involved in the transmission of nerve signals and brain processes. So if preservation is successful, these neurons and synapses will not be damaged — something that can be verified by viewing a slice of the brain under high magnification using an electron microscope.
BPF’s competition is broken into two stages with stringent guidelines. Stage one involves the preservation of an entire mouse brain, or similar small mammalian brain, while stage two focuses on preservation of a large mammalian brain such as that of a pig. The first stage was recently won by a team of researchers at 21st Century Medicine, led by Robert McIntyre, a recent MIT graduate, who used an aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation procedure to successfully preserve a small mammalian brain. This brain-banking technique uses a combination of ultrafast chemical fixation and cryogenic storage to preserve the detailed brain ultrastructure — that cells remain intact and there is no damage to synaptic circuitry.
McIntyre’s revolutionary technique uses a toxic chemical called glutaraldehyde, a commercial-grade disinfectant to preserve the brain and brain structure. As glutaraldehyde rapidly spreads throughout a small mammal’s brain, it stops decay and locks the protein within the brain’s vascular system in place. This stabilizes the tissue and creates an intact brain that could be successfully preserved for centuries.
The next step is figuring out the second stage, how to preserve a larger mammal’s brain, which Hayworth expects to be an even greater challenge. “Right now, the foundation is still operating the final phase of the prize, which requires the preservation of an entire pig brain, a large mammalian brain similar to a human brain, that we statistically scan to verify that nothing is significantly damaged,” he says. Unlike the first phase, which only required a technique applicable in a laboratory setting, the second phase requires a surgical technique applicable in a medical setting such as a hospital, and the team at BPF is continuously evaluating any and all entries. Hayworth expects a breakthrough in the next year or so.
Once the prize is announced and the findings are published, the foundation will begin outreach to the medical and scientific communities. “Once the research is done and published, and we have a technique that works, it’s important to reach out to the various communities to make sure they have their voices heard and that they understand the potential benefits of the technology,” explains Hayworth. The foundation is currently compiling a set of review papers it hopes to publish in regular scientific press and serve to open that dialogue, a way to rebuild the trust in brain preservation that has been lost when cryonics companies jumped the gun and started providing an unproven product to humans.
There are plenty of skeptics who disagree that mind uploading is within our reach, including Michael Hendricks, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of biology at McGill University. “Reanimation or simulation is an abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology and is certainly impossible with the frozen, dead tissue offered by the ‘cryonics’ industry,” he wrote in a 2015 MIT Technology Review article. In his opinion, if ever possible, “any suggestion that you can come back to life is simply snake oil.”
“Who we are is the sum total of the info in our brains, also known as patternism,” refutes Hayworth. “It’s hard for me to imagine anyone in the scientific community who would disagree because it’s the foundational principal on which all science is based.” He adds, “Over 50% of the people who email me and are wrong in various colorful ways bring up the idea of copying somebody; that it would not be the original person. I disagree, because corollary science says we are the types of things that could be copied.”
Hayworth is not shy about addressing these philosophical issues, or tackling the practical questions — or talking about death.
“If I underwent preservation and was revived, I would expect I would have a robotic body with the freedom to explore the world,” he says. “I would have the same learning and mental capacity to grow as an individual.”
When asked what would happen if a revived person wakes up and all of the normal parts of their former life, including those they love, are gone, Hayworth says, “The world I envision is a world in which it’s not just one person who takes the plunge. In the world I envision, we don’t all get there together, but a larger than expected percentage of people choose to have their brains preserved. They know they won’t walk off the table, but they’ve consciously made that decision.”
But if Hayworth has any say, mind uploading will not be commercially available like cryonics. He firmly believes this is a procedure that should only be offered in a medical setting by regulated hospitals.
“The world I would like to see is one where everyone has access to this technique, not just the terminally ill. It’s not expensive, so it would be a relatively minor medical expense compared with other types of surgeries, around $10,000 per procedure.” He adds, “There’s no reason given our current medical system that this wouldn’t be available to everyone with health insurance. At the very least, initially this should be offered as an emergency medical procedure to anyone who is going to die imminently: a euthanasia option.”
Don’t expect immortality in your lifetime, though.
Hayworth is optimistic, but even his projected timeline is less hopeful than what Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, believes. Kurzweil thinks we’ll be uploading our entire minds to computers by 2045, and our bodies will be replaced by machines within 90 years. Successfully preserving the brain is just one step in a much larger process that also includes mind uploading and a robotic body prototype or avatar.
“Proof of principle for mind uploading is as big of a process of the Apollo moon landing, and with the current state of tech today, I don’t see that happening until 40 or 50 years from now,” says Hayworth. “That’s how difficult the first mind uploading would be. Of course, not everyone is Neil Armstrong. It would take another 50 years to get it to the point where it is massively available to those who choose to preserve their brains.” From there, he expects it to be another 50 years or so before our fragile bodies are replaced by machines.
But the unknown and faraway have not quelled Hayworth’s enthusiasm. “If the only options I have are rotting in a grave or having my brain preserved in the hope that in 100 years or more, future tech reconstructs my brain and brings me back to life, I know which option I’d choose,” he added.
Whether a human brain can be preserved successfully remains to be seen, because even once that process works, there comes the challenge of uploading to a non-biological, or semi-biological, being. For now, BPF is just trying to come up with a procedure that safely and entirely preserves the entire spectrum of a human brain so that one day if uploading is achieved a person will remain intact when that uploading occurs, and if Hayworth is right, a day may come where humans can be immortal.
Until then, hang onto your dreams.
Lead image: Wikimedia Commons/escaladix