BPF Co-Founder John Smart's talk, at World Future 2012 in Toronto.
“Can the standard chemical fixation and plastic embedding technique used for electron microscopic investigation of brain circuitry be adapted to preserve the synaptic connectivity of an entire human brain?”
This is a well-defined scientific question, and we now have the tools necessary to answer this question definitively.* This question is of great importance, for at least two reasons:
- The new science of connectomics is gearing up to map the connectome, the full synaptic connectivity of an entire brain. The first major milestone for mammals will be a mouse brain and eventually, we will map an entire human brain. Development of whole brain chemical fixation and plastic embedding procedures seems an absolute prerequisite for such a scientific endeavor.
- Since most neuroscientists today would agree that our unique memories are written into the brain at the level of the cell body and its synaptic connections, successful nuclear and synaptic preservation of an entire brain after clinical death would very likely preserve the memories and identities of all individuals who might wish to do so, for themselves, for their loved ones, for science, or society. There are many who would desire the option to perfectly and inexpensively preserve their brains at the nanometer scale today, for the possibility that future science might be able to read their memories or restore their full identities, as desired.
With respect to the latter, millions of people have at least briefly considered the possibility of having themselves or their loved ones cryonically preserved (very low-temperature preservation and storage) in the hope that future medical technology might revive and cure them. Yet so far, only a few thousand have entered contracts to do so. Why? There are many potential reasons, yet one is a particularly tractable challenge to the scientific community. At present there is scarce evidence that the existing practice of cryonics preserves the precise wiring of our brain’s hundred billion neurons. Cryonics techniques have improved substantially in recent years, but the fundamental question remains:
“Does cryonics as practiced today adequately preserve the synaptic connectivity of an entire human brain?”
This is also a well-defined scientific question that can be answered today. This question is of great importance, particularly to terminally ill patients wishing to preserve their memories or identities today, for which cryonic preservation of unknown efficacy is presently their only alternative.
We at the Brain Preservation Foundation are dedicated to seeing that these questions are answered in a definitive scientific manner as soon as possible. To do so we have introduced the Brain Preservation Technology Prize – a prize that challenges connectomics researchers and cryonics practitioners alike to demonstrate their best whole brain preservation techniques on an animal whose brain is then sectioned at 1mm intervals and subjected to an independent comprehensive electron microscopic sampling survey looking for damage that would destroy synaptic connectivity. The Prize is designed to uncover the truth about the quality of today’s preservation techniques and to spur research into better techniques.
If you agree that these are important questions, and that resources should be devoted to definitively answering them, please consider lending your support. Would you like to join our Advisors group? Have a relevant advanced degree, technical or other experience? Contact us.
* In the types of electron microscopy neuroscientists commonly use (FIBSEM, etc.), preserved neural tissue can be visualized down to about a 6 nanometer resolution. This allows them to directly see each neuron's synapses and dendrites (connections to other neurons). This level of detail also includes the ability to image, directly and indirectly (via molecular probes), many elements of the "synaptome," the number and types of special proteins (vesicles, signaling proteins, cytoskeleton), receptors (Glutamate, etc.), and neurotransmitters (at least six types in human neurons) that are known to be involved in long-term learning and memory at each synapse in the brain, and elements of the "epigenome" (learning-based DNA methylation and histone modifications) in the nucleus of each neuron. It remains an open question in neuroscience exactly which features of the synaptome and epigenome need to be preserved to retain memory and identity in each species. We know simpler connectomes, synaptomes, and epigenomes are used in organisms with simpler memories (C. elegans, Drosophila, Aplysia, etc.), and that the vast majority of neural molecules are not involved in learning and memory, but support other cell functions necessary for life. Chemical fixation and cryonics both preserve the fats, proteins, sugars, and DNA in living neurons, and fix them effectively in place, and relevant membrane receptors stay in their normal distributions as well, as verified by antibody probes. What we don't know yet is if this happens reliably everywhere during whole brain chemical and cryonic preservation. We also don't know the full complement of small molecules and cytoskeletal features in our neurons and glia that are necessary to memory and identity, and which molecular signal states (eg., phosphorylation, methylation) are important. But our knowledge of the molecular basis of learning and memory continues to rapidly grow, aided by exciting new neuroscience techniques (optogenetics, viral tagging, protein microarrays, etc.). Our ability to scan and verify is also rapidly improving. New types of electron microscopy, such as Cryo-TEM, can image at an amazing 3 angstrom resolution, 50 times greater magnification than FIBSEM, a scale where brain proteins and even individual atoms can be directly seen.
Our current Brain Preservation Technology Prize is focused on the connectome, imaged at FIBSEM resolution. As neuroscience advances, we may learn that certain features of the synaptome and epigenome not presently observable by FIBSEM must also be preserved. In that case, the Brain Preservation Foundation will offer additional Technology prizes, and make use of other verification methods and even higher resolution imaging if necessary. Bottom line: As neuroscience continues to advance, BPF will do our best to help science to determine whether reliable and affordable protocols can be found to preserve those brain structures that give rise to our memories and identities, according to our best evidence to date.
Please consider joining our Facebook page (social networking), our LinkedIn group (professional networking), and/or our Twitter feed (brief news updates). The more practical, open-minded, future oriented, and rational folks who join the BPF community, the faster we can achieve our ambitious goals. Thanks for connecting!
BPF In The News
Dr. Ken Hayworth: What is the Future of Your Mind? [Teaser VIDEO]
Dr. Ken Hayworth, Part 1: Will You Preserve Your Brain? [PART#1 VIDEO]
Dr. Ken Hayworth, Part 2: Will You Upload Your Mind? [PART#2 VIDEO]
Ken Hayworth on brain emulation prospects - Extended online interview
The Neuroscientist Who Wants To Upload Humanity To A Computer
Neuroscience – and the Future of Humanity – Interview with Ken Hayworth.
Tue, July 31, 2012
Thur, July 26, 2012
Discussion of BPF at the World Future Society conference.
The Strange Neuroscience of Immortality.
BPF is featured on Season 3, Ep 6, Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, available via iTunes at this link.
Robin Hanson on why he's supporting the Brain Preservation Foundation.
An Update from Competitors for the Brain Preservation Foundation's Technology Prize.
A Connectome Observatory for Nanoscale Brain Imaging. Ken Hayworth's teleXLR8 talk, Kurzweilai.net article.
The Brain Preservation Technology Prize is mentioned.
Mind's circuit diagram to be revealed by a mammoth map. Article discusses BPF Brain Preservation Technology Prize.
Ken Hayworth gave a talk, A Connectome Observatory for nanoscale brain imaging, in teleXLR8, a 3D video conferencing space.