In recent times it has become appealing to believe that your dead brain might be preserved sufficiently by freezing so that some future civilization could bring your mind back to life.
Kenneth D. Miller writes: Some hominid along the evolutionary path to humans was probably the first animal with the cognitive ability to understand that it would someday die. To be human is to cope with this knowledge. Many have been consoled by the religious promise of life beyond this world, but some have been seduced by the hope that they can escape death in this world. Such hopes, from Ponce de León’s quest to find a fountain of youth to the present vogue for cryogenic preservation, inevitably prove false.
“Assuming that no future scientists will reverse death, the hope is that they could analyze your brain’s structure and use this to recreate a functioning mind, whether in engineered living tissue or in a computer with a robotic body.”
In recent times it has become appealing to believe that your dead brain might be preserved sufficiently by freezing so that some future civilization could bring your mind back to life. Assuming that no future scientists will reverse death, the hope is that they could analyze your brain’s structure and use this to recreate a functioning mind, whether in engineered living tissue or in a computer with a robotic body. By functioning, I mean thinking, feeling, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, remembering, acting. Your mind would wake up, much as it wakes up after a night’s sleep, with your own memories, feelings and patterns of thought, and continue on into the world.
I am a theoretical neuroscientist. I study models of brain circuits, precisely the sort of models that would be needed to try to reconstruct or emulate a functioning brain from a detailed knowledge of its structure. I don’t in principle see any reason that what I’ve described could not someday, in the very far future, be achieved (though it’s an active field of philosophical debate). But to accomplish this, these future scientists would need to know details of staggering complexity about the brain’s structure, details quite likely far beyond what any method today could preserve in a dead brain.
“By functioning, I mean thinking, feeling, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, remembering, acting. Your mind would wake up, much as it wakes up after a night’s sleep, with your own memories, feelings and patterns of thought, and continue on into the world.”
How much would we need to know to reconstruct a functioning brain? Let’s begin by defining some terms. Neurons are the cells in the brain that electrically carry information: Their electrical activity somehow amounts to your seeing, hearing, thinking, acting and all the rest. Each neuron sends a highly branched wire, or axon, out to connect or electrically “talk” to other neurons. The specialized connecting points between neurons are called synapses. Memories are commonly thought to be largely stored in the patterns of synaptic connections between neurons, which in turn shape the electrical activities of the neurons.
Much of the current hope of reconstructing a functioning brain rests on connectomics: the ambition to construct a complete wiring diagram, or “connectome,” of all the synaptic connections between neurons in the mammalian brain. Unfortunately connectomics, while an important part of basic research, falls far short of the goal of reconstructing a mind, in two ways. First, we are far from constructing a connectome. The current best achievement was determining the connections in a tiny piece of brain tissue containing 1,700 synapses; the human brain has more than a hundred billion times that number of synapses. While progress is swift, no one has any realistic estimate of how long it will take to arrive at brain-size connectomes. (My wild guess: centuries.)
Second, even if this goal were achieved, it would be only a first step toward the goal of describing the brain sufficiently to capture a mind, which would mean understanding the brain’s detailed electrical activity. Read the rest of this entry »
Elliot Smilowitz reports: Media kingpin Matt Drudge on Tuesday railed against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s health and her politics, saying he was worried the nation would end up “with Hillary’s brain in the Oval Office in a jar.”
Drudge slammed the media for propping up Clinton’s candidacy.
The media mogul cited Clinton’s hypothyroidism as cause for concern. Read the rest of this entry »
Cancer claimed Kim Suozzi at age 23, but she chose to have her brain preserved with the dream that neuroscience might one day revive her mind.
As her pulse monitor sounded its alarm and her breath grew ragged, he fumbled for his phone. Fighting the emotion that threatened to paralyze him, he alerted the cryonics team waiting nearby and called the hospice nurses to come pronounce her dead. Any delay would jeopardize the chance to maybe, someday, resurrect her mind.
It was impossible to know on that cloudless Arizona morning in January 2013 which fragments of Kim’s identity might survive, if any. Would she remember their first, fumbling kiss in his dorm room five years earlier? Their private jokes and dumb arguments? The seizure, the surgery, the fancy neuroscience fellowship she had to turn down?
More than memories, Josh, then 24, wished for the crude procedure to salvage whatever synapses gave rise to her dry, generous humor, compelled her to greet every cat she saw with a high-pitched “helllooo,” and inspired her to write him poems.
They knew how strange it sounded, the hope that Kim’s brain could be preserved in subzero storage so that decades or centuries from now, if science advanced, her billions of interconnected neurons could be scanned, analyzed and converted into computer code that mimicked how they once worked.
But Kim’s terminal prognosis came at the start of a global push to understand the brain. And some of the tools and techniques emerging from neuroscience laboratories were beginning to bear some resemblance to those long envisioned in futurist fantasies.
For one thing, neuroscientists were starting to map the connections between individual neurons believed to encode many aspects of memory and identity.
The research, limited so far to small bits of dead animal brain, had the usual goals of advancing knowledge and improving human health. Still, it was driving interest in what would be a critical first step to create any simulation of an individual mind: preserving that pattern of connections in an entire brain after death.
“I can see within, say, 40 years that we would have a method to generate a digital replica of a person’s mind,” said Winfried Denk, a director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Germany, who has invented one of several mapping techniques. “It’s not my primary motivation, but it is a logical outgrowth of our work.”
Other neuroscientists do not take that idea seriously, given the great gaps in knowledge about the workings of the brain. “We are nowhere close to brain emulation given our current level of understanding,” said Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York and one of the architects of the Obama administration’s initiative seeking a $4.5 billion investment in brain research over the next decade.
“Will it ever be possible?” she asked. “I don’t know. But this isn’t 50 years away.”
There would not, Kim and Josh well understood, be any quick reunion. But so long as there was a chance, even a small or distant one, they thought it was worth trying to preserve her brain.
Might her actual brain be repaired so she could “wake up” one day, the dominant dream of cryonics for the last half-century? She did not rule it out. But they also imagined a different outcome, that she might rejoin the world in an artificial body or a computer-simulated environment, or perhaps both, feeling and sensing through a silicon chip rather than a brain.
“I just think it’s worth trying to preserve Kim,” Josh said.
For a brief period three years ago, the young couple became a minor social media sensation as they went to the online forum Reddit to solicit donations to pay for her cryonic storage and Kim posted video blogs about her condition.
And she agreed to let a Times reporter speak to her family and friends and chart her remaining months and her bid for another chance at life, with one restriction: “I don’t want you to think I have any idea what the future will be like,” she wrote in a text message. “So I mean, don’t portray it like I know.”
In a culture that places a premium on the graceful acceptance of death, the couple faced a wave of hostility, tempered by sympathy for Kim’s desire, as she explained it, “not to miss it all.”
Family members and strangers alike told them they were wasting Kim’s precious remaining time on a pipe dream. Kim herself would allow only that “if it does happen to work, it would be incredible.” “Dying,” her father admonished gently, “is a part of life.”
Yet as the brain preservation research that was just starting as Kim’s life was ending begins to bear fruit, the questions the couple faced may ultimately confront more of us with implications that could be preposterously profound. Read the rest of this entry »
As regenerative medicine and stem cell technologies continue to progress, so the list of tissues and organs that can be grown from scratch – and potentially replaced – continues to grow. In the past few years, researchers have used stem cells to grow windpipes, bladders, urethras and vaginas in the lab, and, in some cases, successfully transplanted them into patients.
Others are making progress in growing liver and heart tissue; one team in London is busy growing blood vessels, noses and ears; and some have even managed to grow tiny chunks of brain tissue, the most complex of all the tissues in the human body. Now, researchers in Germany report that they have grown complete spinal cords from embryonic stem cells.
Most efforts to grow tissues and organs rely on biodegradable scaffolds. When ‘seeded’ with a patient’s stem cells, these scaffolds provide a surface for the cells to latch on to and provide them with nutrients. The scaffold delivers the signals needed for the stem cells to differentiate along the correct path, and its structure coaxes them to form tissue of the right shape.
Nervous tissue is extremely complex, however. It starts off as a flat sheet of cells on the top surface of the embryo, called the neural plate, which, through a series of elaborate deformations, buckles and folds in on itself to form a hollow tube. One end of this neural tube will eventually form the brain, and the other the spinal cord. This complexity makes scaffolds unsuitable for growing nervous tissue, as they cannot be manufactured in the intricate shapes needed.
Andrea Meinhardt of the Dresden University of Technology and her colleagues therefore exploited a property of stem cells known as self-directed morphogenesis, first discovered by the late Yoshiki Sasai. About 10 years ago, Sasai and his colleagues developed a method for growing embryonic stem cells in three-dimensional suspension, and found that cells grown in this way can, when fed the right combination of signalling molecules, go through the motions of development and organize themselves to form complex tissues such as eyes, glands and bits of brain.
Meinhardt and her colleagues used a variation of Sasai’s technique, and embedded single-cell suspensions of mouse embryonic stem cells within a three-dimensional nutrient gel on Petri dishes. When left untreated, the cells begin to differentiate into immature neurons, giving rise to spherical structures containing immature cells resembling those found in the neural plate. Read the rest of this entry »
Randal Koene is recruiting top neuroscientists to help him make humans live forever
By mapping the brain, reducing its activity to computations, and reproducing those computations in code, humans could live indefinitely…
On stage, a speaker with a shaved head and a thick, black beard held forth on DIY sensory augmentation. A group called Science for the Masses, he said, was developing a pill that would soon allow humans to perceive the near-infrared spectrum. He personally had implanted tiny magnets into his outer ears so that he could listen to music converted into vibrations by a magnetic coil attached to his phone.
The concept of brain emulation has a long, colorful history in science fiction, but it’s also deeply rooted in computer science.
None of this seemed particularly ambitious, however, compared with the claim soon to follow. In the back of the audience, carefully reviewing his notes, sat Randal Koene, a bespectacled neuroscientist wearing black cargo pants, a black T-shirt showing a brain on a laptop screen, and a pair of black, shiny boots. Koene had come to explain to the assembled crowd how to live forever. ”As a species, we really only inhabit a small sliver of time and space,”Koene said when he took the stage. ”We want a species that can be effective and influential and creative in a much larger sphere.”
Koene’s solution was straightforward: He planned to upload his brain to a computer. Read the rest of this entry »
The narrator talks fast. I like that. Look for the phrase “Hormonal Rodeo”.
Being a teenager is hard. Especially when hormones play their part in wreaking havoc on the teenage body and brain. In this episode, Hank explains what is happening to the during the angsty-time.