“One of the chief ideas we shall develop in this book is that the specificity of the synaptic connections established during development underlie perception, action, emotion, and learning.”
– Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, from his textbook, Principles of Neural Science
“[E]verything you know is encoded in the patterns of your synaptic weights…”
– Randal O’Reilly, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado Boulder, from his textbook Computational Cognitive Neuroscience
“And here was Broca’s brain floating in formalin, and in fragments, before me. …Is Paul Broca still there in his formalin-filled bottle? Perhaps the memory traces have decayed, although there is good evidence from modern brain investigations that memory is redundantly stored in many different places in the brain. Might it be possible at some future time, when neurophysiology has advanced substantially, to reconstruct the memories or insights of someone long dead?… “
– Carl Sagan, from his book Broca’s Brain
The Great Library of Alexandria, constructed in the third century BC, was the center of science and learning in the ancient world. Its collection of tens of thousands of scrolls contained the hard-won knowledge of the ancient world and a priceless trove of human history. But with the destruction of the library almost all of this knowledge was lost. “The burning of the Great Library of Alexandria” has become a metaphor for any reckless destruction of unique knowledge –an inexcusable insult to both the original author and to future generations.
Considering today’s obsession with digital archiving we might think that future generations will thank us for our careful conservatorship. But in fact it is much more likely that they will look back at the early 21st century and view it as ‘another burning of the Great Library of Alexandria!’
To understand why, consider how far neuroscience has come in just the last decade, then envision the world a few centuries from now. Today’s neuroscientific theories have led us to deep learning neural networks which allow our apps to understand speech, recognize faces, and even drive autonomous cars. Neuroscience imaging technology is preparing to map entire insect and small mammal brains at the nanometer scale using ultrafast electron microscopes, with the near-term goal of reading memories. We are using powerful new tools in genetics, molecular biology, biotechnology, microscopy, systems biology, data science, and other fields to finally uncover the set of epigenetic, extracellular, and synaptic changes that form the molecular basis of memory. The 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience was won by three neuroscientists for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition. The 2016 Brain Prize was won by three neuroscientists for elucidating the molecular mechanisms of long-term potentiation, one of the keys to storing and sustaining lifelong memories in mammalian brains.
If the world continues this accelerated pace there is every reason to expect that in a few hundred years we will have a complete science of how the brain gives rise to mind, and the technological prowess to routinely upload memories and minds. This will be a world whose technological advancements and material prosperity are as far beyond us today as we are beyond the ancient Greeks. Citizens of that future world will have conquered disease and death and overcome countless other biological limitations. They will viscerally understand what today’s neuroscience textbooks try to convey: The mind is computational, and a person’s unique memories and personality are encoded in the pattern of physical connections between neurons.
From that vantage point, future generations will ask:
In 2010 we established the Brain Preservation Foundation with an eye to this future perspective. We asked:
- “Is it possible to preserve the the synaptic connectivity of the human brain at death in a way that it could be stored for >100 years?”
- “How close is cryonics to meeting that goal?”
- “Are there alternative brain preservation methods stemming from modern neuroscience research?”
We reasoned that one of the best ways to definitively answer these questions was to offer a challenge prize:
The Brain Preservation Prize: A challenge to cryonicists, a challenge to scientists
Almost five years later we have begun to get some real answers. Two world-class research labs (21st Century Medicine and Shawn Mikula’s laboratory at the Max Planck Institute) entered into our prize competition.
21st Century Medicine (21CM), a leading cryobiology research laboratory, was the perfect choice to test how well state-of-the-art cryonics preserves brain ultrastructure. A summary of their results can be found on our 21CM Cryopreservation Page. That research uncovered limitations in the current cryonics protocols when judged against the goal of verifiably preserving synaptic structure. As a result 21CM invented a new brain preservation protocol, called “Aldehyde Stabilized Cryopreservation”, which appears to have entirely overcome these limitations. A summary of their results can be found on our Aldehyde Stabilized Cryopreservation Page.
Separately, Shawn Mikula’s laboratory has not only worked out how to preserve a whole mouse brain at the ultrastructure level, but has done so in a way that makes it directly compatible with today’s high-speed 3D electron microcopy. Our evaluation results of a whole brain entry he sent us can be found on our Mikula Evaluation Page.
It now seems clear that, if the medical and scientific communities were to expend a modicum of effort, a reliable, inexpensive, and scientifically proven procedure for brain preservation could be made available, in short order, in hospitals to all terminal patients that might desire it over the current alternatives (i.e. burial and cremation).
Would anyone really elect to undergo such a brain preservation procedure? For at least a small minority of the population the answer is yes. Since its inception, the Brain Preservation Foundation has attracted a diverse group of volunteers, advisors, and donors many of which not only support the development of such technology but hope that the option will be available to them when they need it. Informal surveys imply that a significant percentage (>10%) of the (online, technologically-savvy) population would desire the option for themselves, especially if friends and loved ones did so as well. Cryonics has never attracted significant numbers despite decades of trying, but in our experience most people rationally refuse to consider cryonics because they have no real proof of the quality of preservation. This new “field” of scientifically-verified brain preservation we are witnessing today may fundamentally change that calculus.
Coming back to our analogy: We are the scrolls in today’s Library of Alexandria. Each of us has spent decades honing our unique identity and accumulating our unique memories. Our memories weave the thread of our life together with the lives of our loved ones and, in turn, with the rest of humanity. As fragile biological creatures, we have learned to accept that we all age and die, and with death our particular thread is ripped out of the tapestry of humanity -our scroll is set ablaze.
But with the ever quickening pace of science and technology more of us are realizing that death will not be a part of the human condition forever. Our great-grandchildren may not know traditional death at all; ours may be one of the very last generations to cower under its looming shadow. The perfection of brain preservation technology represents today’s best chance at reaching that future world.
Please join us in advocating for more research into perfecting brain preservation and, when it is scientifically proven, in urging the medical community to implement such a procedure in hospitals.
Update on the Brain Preservation Foundation Small Mammal Prize (February 2016)
The BPF Small Mammal Prize has officially been won! Please view the announcement page for more information. The prize announcement has recently been covered by several news organizations including New Scientist, Scientific American, and the Huffington Post. Links to and selected quotes from these news stories are displayed on the BPF in the News page.