The Future of Memory Preservation Technology: Nectome
Would you ever consider preserving your brain to be brought back to life in the future? This may sound straight out of a sci-fi movie, but there is a company that is currently looking to do just that. Nectome is a research company that is working towards granting people “immortality”.
Essentially, Nectome is creating a technology that will preserve human brains using an embalming process. The chemical solution they use can allegedly keep organs preserved for up to hundreds or even thousands of years just waiting on the scientific discovery that will allow human brains to be “downloaded”. Your “future” brain will then be able to live on a server somewhere and you would be able to theoretically come back to life.
The most important aspect of this brain-preserving technology, which is also the darkest, is that the brains must be preserved fresh. For this reason, Nectome is currently planning to link patients with existing terminal illnesses to a machine that will introduce the embalming chemicals into their arteries while they are still alive.
This procedure is called Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation and the team is performing this by using a heart-lung machine, which connects to the patient’s heart and takes over the heart’s pumping action while a specialized doctor monitors their vitals. The pump is normally used to allow heart surgeons to perform open-surgeries on a heart that is not beating while blood flow is being restricted.
While the machine is connected, a tube will drain the blood into the machine which will then remove carbon dioxide, add oxygen and the embalming chemical, then pump the blood back into the body.
This is all happening while the patient is alive and under general anesthesia, which also means the procedure will be fatal. The intended goal of Nectome is to allow patients with terminal illnesses a second chance at life sometime in the next century or even the next millennium.
Now of course, with any company working with human lives on the line, you may be wondering what the legal implications are for families who want to choose this option for loved ones who are terminally ill or in a coma. Nectome is being advised by lawyers who are familiar with the End of Life Option Act for patients in California, which allows for doctor-assisted suicide.
This law allows for the embalming process to be 100% legal for terminal patients. There is actually already a waiting list for those who want to be part of the few who may get to experience life as an immortal program on a computer. This school of thought is rightly entitled transhumanism, which revolves around the idea of humans being able to transcend out of their physical bodies.
Nectome recently won a large $960 million federal grant for their research as well as previously collaborating with a well-known neuroscientist from MIT, Edward Boyden. Based on their current research, the team was able to preserve a pig’s brain almost perfectly, where all the synapses in the brain could still be seen under an electron microscope.
Nectome has also been selected as a Y Combinator startup, which is a highly competitive startup incubator program that includes the likes of Airbnb, Dropbox, Twitch, and other well-known companies.
The two co-founders, Robert McIntyre and Michael McCanna, have had their fair share of background expertise when it comes to the area of brain storage and preservation. Prior to founding Nectome, McIntyre worked with Greg Fahy, a cryobiologist at 21st Century Medicine, who focused on developing a method that combined brain embalming with cryonics.
Using this method, they were able to preserve an entire brain down to a nanometer scale, including the collection of synapses that connect neurons, the connectome. A human brain’s connectome map could potentially be tied into the process of storing a person’s consciousness.
If you think of a brain like a computer, even when the computer is off, the information stored inside the computer still exists. This same logic can be applied to Nectome’s brain preservation process. As of today, it can be relatively difficult and time-consuming to map out a connectome because a single nerve could be connected to 8,000 others, on top of the fact that the brain contains billions of them.
While Nectome is still working on making its memory “storage” service marketable, they must also provide evidence for whether or not memories can even be extracted from dead brain tissue. However, the team has already been able to proceed with the embalming process on a brain just two hours after the person’s death.
This was the first trial of their technique and they purchased the body from Aeternitas, a company that allows everyday people to donate their bodies to science. After six hours, they were able to preserve the brain extremely well, to the point where they were able to take defined images with an electron microscope.
The team is allowing potential customers to sign up for their waitlist with a fully refundable deposit of $10,000, with no contracts or requirements for customers to follow through. Sam Altman, one of the founders of the Y Combinator Program, is one of many people on Nectome’s waitlist, as he believes that human minds will surely be digitized in his lifetime.
While there are definitely arguments around the ethical, legal, and moral controversies behind this new technology, it can be said that Nectome is a company to keep an eye on for the next few years. Even if this technology can exist, keep in mind that a hacker could potentially hack into one of these brain servers of the future and essentially “steal” peoples’ consciousness, especially since this is currently an uncharted territory for lawmakers and governments.
Imagine living in a society where it is normal to have your brain backed up to the cloud for memory retention or storage. Who knows? This could very well become a reality sooner than you may think.
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