When we die, the neural connections that make memories start to degrade. But what if our brains could be preserved? What if our memories could be backed up like computer data? One start-up company says it's possible.
Introducing Nectome, an organization whose "ultimate ambition is to keep your memories intact for the future."
The company — co-founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate Robert McIntyre — says that soon, we may be able to preserve the human connectome and even "upload" our memories to the cloud.
According to the Brain Preservation Foundation, the connectome is a map of the brain's neural connections, or those between brain cells.
These connections are called synapses. Synapses are structures that pass electrical or chemical signals between neurons. In other words, synapses allow brain cells to communicate with each other, and these structures are important for memory formation.
Using a technique called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation — also referred to as vitrifixation — Nectome believe that they could preserve human synapses, along with the memories they have helped to form.
How does vitrifixation work?
"Vitrifixation" comprises two processes: fixation and vitrification. Fixation involves using a chemical called glutaraldehyde to solidify synapses and prevent them from degrading.
In order to enhance preservation further, the brain is stored at -122°C. This way, it can be stored for hundreds of years, according to Nectome.
A chemical called ethylene glycol is applied to the brains prior to freezing, to stop the formation of ice crystals. As concentrations of ethylene glycol increase, the brain is put into a vitreous, or glass-like, state. This is the vitrification process.
If you think that this all sounds a bit far-fetched, you might be interested to know that Nectome have already managed to preserve an entire rabbit brain using vitrifixation.
The technique has already reached human testing. Earlier this year, McIntyre and colleagues used vitrifixation to preserve the brain of an elderly woman just 2.5 hours after she died. Talking to MIT Technology Review, McIntyre claims that the lady's brain is "one of the best-preserved ever."
There is one problem, however: although 2.5 hours between death and brain preservation doesn't seem like too long, the brain suffers a great deal of damage in that time.
In order for the brain to be fully preserved through vitrifixation, it needs to be fresh. Ideally, the procedure needs to be performed as a person is nearing the end of their life.
This means that for Nectome to move their idea forward, they need to find people willing to die to have their brains fully preserved, in the hope that their memories can one day be retrieved and transformed into a computer simulation.
Technique could 'recreate the mind'
Who would do such a thing? Well, Nectome have already rolled out a waiting list for the procedure, primarily as a way to achieve funding. For a $10,000 deposit, you can sign up to the possibility of having your brain and memories preserved.
According to Nectome, 25 people have already signed up, despite the procedure not being fully fleshed out.
While the preservation technique has shown some feasibility, scientists are still not sure whether it is even possible to retrieve memories from the human brain after death, and Nectome have yet to come up with a strategy that may enable them to "upload" retrieved memories.
Still, the company plans to take advantage of "death with dignity" Acts that have been passed in some states across America, including California, Oregon, and Washington.
According to McIntyre, Nectome are in talks with lawyers who are well versed in such Acts, and they believe that they will achieve legal backing to perform the procedure.
The company has already received backing from Y Combinator — an organization that helps to accelerate start-up companies — and Nectome will present their controversial idea at the company's Demo Day next week.
The technique is bound to attract some criticism, but McIntyre and colleagues believe that it will one day be possible to back up our brains and retrieve our memories in years to come.
As Nectome write on their website:
"If memories can truly be preserved by a sufficiently good brain banking technique, we believe that within the century it could become feasible to digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind."