MAR 21, 2018 6:41 AM PDT

Preserving the Brain and Memories: Is This for Real?

In a small lab, maybe in a rural area, there could be frozen bodies and slides of nanometer thin brain slices, perfectly preserved. Scientists are working on their product, a back-up of human memories and consciousness, taken from the freshly harvested brains of terminally ill patients, in a procedure the company calls "100% fatal."

Is this a new sci-fi blockbuster? No, it's a new bio startup called Nectome, and they have perfected a process to harvest and preserve a person's brain so explicitly that the memories and experiences of said person can be backed up and stored, forever. Sort of a database of immortality.

Nectome founders Robert McIntyre and Michael McCanna are convinced that their process can work and that in addition to being fatal, will also be legal. He told Technology Review, "The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide. Product-market fit is people believing that it works." The company feels confident it will work since they have already garnered a prize from the Brain Preservation Foundation for their study that preserved the brain of a pig so precisely that every last neuron and synapse could be seen with an electron microscope.

It's not so much the brain tissue that matters in preserving a brain, but the connectome. Each person's connectome is primarily a neurological fingerprint. A single brain cell, of which there are millions, could have as many as 8,000 connections to and from it. If this vast network is preserved, using machine learning and AI, researchers could virtually download all the activity stored in the brain.

The process is not for the faint of heart, however. Once a terminally ill patient decides they want in, they are connected to a heart-lung machine to keep the body alive, and chemicals are given via the carotid artery that circulate and keep the body going. The patient is, by this time, headed for euthanization, and the brain is harvested and prepared for preservation. The company is taking $10,000 deposits from customers who want to be part of the process, and there is a waiting list.

McIntyre and McCanna have performed the process on one patient, an elderly female. Her brain was harvested and preserved within 3 hours after her death, so there is damage. McIntyre explained, "You can think of what we do as a fancy form of embalming that preserves not just the outer details but the inner details." The body of the female patient was purchased from Aeternitas, a company that connects bodies donated for scientific purposes, to researchers who need them.

Unlike cryopreservation, with Nectome there is no plan to re-animate tissue. The point of preserving the entire connectome of a human brain is so that person's collective learning and life experience can be uploaded. While that could not happen with the one patient they've already preserved, the plan is to work with patients who are already planning a doctor-assisted suicide to get the brain at the ideal time. Naturally, there are ethical concerns, and the company plans to address them. For now, it's more about marketing and figuring out how to make their process not quite so…out there. Check out the video to learn more about it.

Sources: MIT Technology Review, Vanity Fair, Brain Preservation Foundation

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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