The idea that some part of us will live on after we die is a comforting thought to many. One tech startup is suggesting the possibility of an afterlife—in a sense—by preserving people’s brains and digitizing their memories, according to an article in MIT Technology Review.
Nectome, a company in California founded by computer scientist Michael McCanna and engineer Robert McIntyre, is working on a process to preserve the brain with a chemical solution and map its connectome—the web of synapses that connect neurons.
The article, by Antonio Regalado, says “there’s no expectation here that the preserved tissue can actually be brought back to life. Instead, the idea is to retrieve information that’s present in the brain’s anatomical layout and molecular details.”
Nectome is developing tools to physically preserve the body and nervous system, including the brain. It is especially focused on preserving physical and chemical correlates of memory, according to its cofounder, Robert McIntyre.
“For Nectome, better brain preservation technology means better insight into how the brain works, and how it fails to work when damaged by disease and trauma,” he told The Institute. “In the past, advances in preserving animal and human tissue have led to major advances in science, and these trends continue today. But Nectome is also working towards more than just better brain-banking technology; it wants to know if it can create a protocol that preserves physical and chemical mechanisms of long-term memory.
“We got started because we wanted to preserve the memories of ourselves and our loved ones. We think others would be interested in this option as well.”
McIntyre says Nectome is still developing a method to preserve the brain in a way that would maintain the integrity of synapses, where human memory is believed to be stored.
Nectome put its technique, called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation or vitrification, into practice in February with an elderly woman who had arranged to donate her body to science. The scientists began preserving her brain two hours after she died. The process took about six hours. McIntyre told MIT Technology Review the woman’s brain is “one of the best-preserved ever” although the two-hour process caused some damage to the brain tissue.
It might seem like science fiction, but Nectome’s idea is getting attention from investors. Startup accelerator Y Combinator this year accepted the company into its three-month boot camp program, which comes with a US $120,000 grant. The founders also received an $80,000 grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to work with IEEE Member Edward Boyden, an MIT Media Lab professor, on advancing their preservation technique. As of March, the startup had raised more than $1 million.
After the neuroscience community criticized MIT for giving Nectome credibility, however, the university cut ties with the startup in April.
One of the detractors, Sam Gershman, is a computational neuroscientist at Harvard. He told Live Science he sees several problems with Nectome’s claims.
“Just because the connectome is a part of how your memory works, it doesn’t prove that future scientists could somehow reconstruct your memory from it,” Gershman said. “Can we reconstruct all memories knowing only the connections between neurons? The answer is almost certainly no, given our knowledge about how memories are stored.”
McIntyre told The Institute that the company is still in the research phase; it’s not preserving brains right now.
“First and more most, we’re dedicated to getting the science and the ethics right. We’re currently engaged in research to develop better human brain-banking technology and we use donated post-mortem human brains for that purpose,” McIntyre says. “We think that people who choose to donate their brains to science after death are dong a tremendous service to the world. The choice to donate is personal and done for many reasons, but a common motivation is the desire to improve humanity’s knowledge and help future generations. By building the best brain-banking technique possible, Nectome is doing the best we can to honor their choice.”
Do you believe that an AI afterlife is possible? Would you pay to preserve your brain?
*This article was corrected from an earlier version.