They will kill you to save the brain: explain the scientific language...

They will kill you to save the brain: explain the scientific language of design Nectome


The other day we stumbled on a strange news. Don’t hear every day. The startup, created with the support of the Massachusetts Institute of technology, $ 10,000 will retain your brain at the level of synapses. Already in this century, as the company promises, will appear to neuroscientists, able to retrieve information stored in these synapses, to upload it to a supercomputer, to restart your memories and “to back up your mind”. But there is one thing: technology will only work if you’re still alive. To preserve the connectome of your brain – a complex network of connections of all brain synapses – they’ll have to kill you. Sounds crazy ridiculous or ridiculously crazy. And hard to believe. But we’re adults, we are interested in the scientific side of the issue, not bare promises.

Not so long ago Nectome even showed his blue dream of the startup incubator Y Combinator, and… was in the list of desirable partners. And clients appeared almost instantly. It is easy to understand why: Nectome sells older, but very attractive the idea of uploading consciousness to the cloud.

Wait a skeptical roll of the eyes. The technique of preservation of the brain Nectome won the prize of $ 80,000 from the Foundation for the preservation of the brain (BPF) for the preservation of the pig brain. Now they have teamed up with one of the most prominent neurotechnologies Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT), Dr. ed Boyden, to continue to work on the method is already together.

Previously, Boyden has developed amazing technology that physically enhances the brain tissue in 10-20 times. Combining the special sauce of cryopreservation Nectome with microscopy expansion of Boyden, a start-up can achieve amazing: save the entire human brain at the nanoscale, where each synapse can be seen in the electron microscope.

This idea not so long ago attracted a grant of $ 900,000 from the National institutes of health and more than $ 1 million of funding.

Dr. Sebastian Seung once said, “I am my connectome”. It is easy to imagine that your memories (and even yourself) can be extracted from well-preserved brain, and your mind will find a new life.

In short, the brain in a VAT – this is not new. But what then?

Frozen in time

Unlike cryogenics, Nectome does not store your head in vats of liquid nitrogen. On the contrary, he uses the method of the aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation (ASC) to embalm the living brain prior to cryoprotection.

The main goal is not to preserve the “biological viability”, say the team members of a startup, “and to support the delicate and highly structured form of the brain.”

First published in Cryobiology in 2015, the ASC is a extremely unpleasant method: shipped in a state of complete anesthesia (sedation) in the body when the heart is artificially supported, gets rid of the blood, which is replaced with a chemical called glutaraldehyde. This retainer acts as a molecular cuffs, stitching together the proteins and stabilize their structure.

Keep in mind that this process numbs the brain. There is no way back.

But the goal is. A dead brain cannot run post-mortem biological processes that lead to decay. The retainer keeps the brain in the most natural state – neuroscientists often use it to process samples of the brain before looking at in the microscope.

After the “commit” command Nectome uses an automatic pump to start the circulation system of blood flow, but with a cryoprotective solution. Then the brain surgeons removed and placed in storage for cooling to -135 degrees Celsius.

Thus, the “biological time would stop, allowing the brain to store a very long time”, the scientists explain.

First tested on the brain of a rabbit and a pig, the technology worked great. After thawing, createsite washed away, providing a fully preserved brain to connectionscope analysis.

Now replace rabbits and pigs people. That’s what he wants to do Nectome for their customers.

Priceless currency

As reported by MIT Technology Review, Nectome have already launched their fingers in the preservation of the human brain. This February, the team bought the brain of the recently deceased women and implemented the ASC in the morgue. The process took about six hours.

Despite the fact that the securities authority had been dead for two and a half hours, a woman’s brain was “one of the best ever stored,” says co-founder Nectome Robert McIntyre.

Let us for a moment digress and set aside the promise download consciousness. Integration of ASC with advanced microscopy has enormous scientific potential. According to MA Chao, Professor, Chinese Academy of medical Sciences, tissue treated ASC, can provide important information about the subcellular structures of the neuron.

“This information can be very important for the study of brain aging and degenerative disorders,” he said in an interview.

Comparing the synaptic structure of a healthy brain and a brain with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, scientists can obtain valuable data – which regions of the brain are affected the most, what structural pathology and so on.

Recreated the mind

Not all agree that ASC is any way to “archive reason”.

Some of the arguments against technology. Despite billions of dollars and several large-scale programs of the brain mapping, one not (yet) able to capture the mammalian brain at the level of synapses, even the mouse.

But the scale of mouse brain and a human are very different: in the human brain millions of neurons, each of which forms thousands of connections with others, forming trillions of synapses. Today, even the most advanced attempts to present such a picture can not cope with even one cubic millimeter of mouse brain.

Dr. Kenneth Hayworth, President of the Foundation for the preservation of the brain, does not see this as a problem. After 100 years, he says, we will have the technology of visualization of the whole brain. And speaking in support of the ASC as procedures for the end of life, he noted that since information content is stored, there is “at least a possibility in the future to restore the patient with very advanced technology.”

Technological barriers aside. Perhaps more controversial idea is that your memories, thoughts and personality can be restored by examining only one structure.

The living brain is, in the end, is constantly in motion. Neuroscientists often capture the fleeting process of neurons by inserting electrodes into the brain to catch electrical signals. Or use glow in the dark protein sensors for monitoring neural activity.

In other words, like all biological processes, the idea is dynamic. It is impossible to recreate an entire human being using only the letters DNA, the expression of his DNA, based on the complex interactions between itself and its surroundings – that’s what makes him human.

Similarly, it is possible that you will not be able to reconstruct the history of neural activity recorded in the stillness of the brain. You may not be able to remove any thoughts of a full map of the connectome.

Dr. Sam Gershman, scientist-a neuroscientist at Harvard University, calls the connectome “is functionally depleted source of information about brain function”.

Think about it: the neuroscientists were full connectome of C. Elegans, the worm C. elegans, with the 1980-ies. I felt the creature before he died? What were his last thoughts? Despite the fact that the worm was only 7000 neural connections, so we don’t know.

“Only one synaptic structure provides only a static map,” said MA. “However, factors that can affect memories and intelligence, much more. Freezing the brain at a particular point in time, we lose the temporal information about the brain.”

In the end, it is unclear what you want to save to extract “you” from the massive confusion of neural connections in your head. Enough of the structure of the synapse? Do we need to capture the memory associated with proteins? How about non-neural cells, glia, which are involved in memory? Or would be more appropriate to model the strength of synapses in a living brain inside a computer to be able to “upload consciousness” after death (and before it too)?

Have Nectome there is a plan in this regard: by 2020, they plan to extract “bits of memory”, from the saved mouse brain. In human brain they are still not even tried to do it.

Ethical nuances

Can the company fulfill its promise. But perhaps more worrying is the fact that Nectome plans to offer, in fact, not yet proven service for terminally ill people.

After consulting with lawyers who are well versed in the issue of euthanasia, the company decided that its service is completely legal. But even Hayworth thinks this should be approached with caution.

Any changes to the ASC method should be thoroughly tested on animals and considered the wider medical community before it will be offered as a medical procedure.

While in the queue there are already 25 people, and this number will grow. In the end, the potential revival of let and small, but too tempting.

Still haven’t changed. Think about it.

“We haven’t even begun to interpret the recorded synapses from the point of view of memories from living people,” says Dr. AI-Min Bao, Deputy Director of the School of medicine at the University of Zhejiang in China. “This is real science fiction. Promise too much.”