We live in very exciting times. Soon, people all over the world may have at least two reliable and proven ways to preserve their brains, including their individual memories and identities, after they die.
One preservation technology is called plastination (chemopreservation). It involves chemical fixation and embedding of brain tissue in plastic for room-temperature storage. It is a much-higher-end version of the process seen in such exhibits as Body Worlds. For decades, perfect plastination has been done for very small amounts of brain tissue (one millimeter cubed). Soon, it will be attempted for whole animal brains. Another preservation technology is called cryonics(cryopreservation). It involves preserving brain tissue with chemicals that prevent ice formation, followed by low-temperature storage in a “glass-like” state (vitrification). Recent cryonics advances have allowed organ cryopreservation, thawing, and successful re-transplantation in small animals, bringing this technology closer to its goal of reversible solid-state suspended animation. Each of these technologies, and other less sophisticated ones, such as chemical fixation without plastic embedding, deserves to be carefully evaluated for its ability to preserve the critical structures of our brains, an evaluation that has never before occurred for an entire human brain.
Fortunately, neuroscience is now identifying the synaptic and nuclear structures that contain our unique memories and identity, and new electron microscopy (EM) imaging techniques are allowing us to verify when these structures have been successfully preserved, from gross connectivity in the connectome, all the way to particular synaptic features, receptor distributions, and even the signal states (phosphorylation, methylation, etc.) of individual brain proteins. The cost of this brain scanning and uploading process is dropping exponentially, while capacity continues to grow exponentially. There are also potentially disruptive scanning technologies on the long-term horizon, including molecular-scale MRI. Recently, MRI machines have been built that can image individual cell proteins, improbable as this sounds. Such technology may one day give us the ability to inexpensively and nondestructively scan plastinated brains to upload the molecular features of memory and identity.
Given these developments, BPF has launched the Brain Preservation Technology Prize, to promote exploration of brain preservation technology in service of humanity. The Prize, presently $106,000, will be awarded in two parts. Part 1, 25% of the Prize purse, will be awarded the first international team to successfully preserve, with complete preservation of synaptic structure, a whole mouse brain, via any technology. Part 2, 75% of the Prize purse, will go to the first team to successfully preserve a whole large animal brain in a manner that could also be adopted for humans in a hospital or hospice setting immediately upon clinical death. Preservation quality will be validated by careful EM imaging of samples taken from the entire preserved brain. BPF believes such a validated procedure will be of great benefit to humanity, for at least the following reasons:
1. For Science. High-fidelity brain preservation is a necessary step to an eventual Human Connectome Project, understanding the circuit-level organization of human and other animal brains. Progress in connectomics, or plastinating and scanning human and other animal brains, will allow us a much deeper understanding of healthy and disordered mental behavior, and may also help create significantly more intelligent and useful computers.
2. For Memory Donation. Brain preservation would appear to provide interested persons worldwide a means of preserving their memories and experiences. Those who wish to leave behind such memories, for loved ones, descendants, or as a donation to culture would be able to do so, potentially very inexpensively, and potentially to the great benefit of society. Neuroscience strongly suggests brain memories could be read by future technology without revival of the individual, if revival were not desired, much as we read computer hard drives or archeological digs today.
3. For Continued Life. Brain preservation might provide a reliable means of avoiding death entirely and reaching the distant future. For those who accept the hypothesis that they are encoded in their brain’s unique physical structure and process, all evidence to date suggests this would work. Furthermore, if general artificial intelligence emerges in this century, as many scholars expect, reanimation might occur not centuries, but mere decades from now, while your friends and loved ones are still alive, and could personally benefit from your revival.
4. For the Future. Even for those unsure of the value of preservation, such a procedure could be desirable if it were inexpensive and reliable. Such individuals might “leave it to the future” (future family, institutions, or society) to decide if memory or identity revival was desired, in their individual case. With certain knowledge that one’s life experiences and insights will otherwise disappear from the world, and comparatively few resources necessary for plastination or cryonics, preservation for the possibility of future service to loved ones or society might be seen as a particularly responsible and humble end-of-life decision.
Plastination, if validated, promises to greatly increase access to brain preservation globally, given its very low cost (likely just a few thousand dollars, a fraction of the cost of a casket burial) and the simplicity of room-temperature storage (in cemetaries, contract storage, even private homes). Cryonics, for its part, is also inexpensive when paid for incrementally via life insurance, and it also seems likely to gain much greater favor as medical and scientific cryobiology therapies advance. It’s time to put these two promising brain preservation technologies to the test.
How soon after these technologies are validated could we see inexpensive preservation services available in every country? If the technology were affordable, reliable, and a number of your friends had already done it, would you consider brain preservation at the end of your own life, for any of the reasons above? If not, why not? Please contact us and let us know your thoughts.
Still skeptical? You may enjoy Overcoming Objections to Brain Preservation, which provides a list of common concerns and plausible answers for your consideration.
For those able to help increase the Prize purse, or our BPF endowment, please consider making a small donation today. Every dollar helps. Thank you.