A talk given at the H+ Harvard Summit, June 12-13, 2010.
© 2010, John M. Smart. Creative commons, share alike. Reproduction, review and quotation encouraged with attribution
Roughly 150,000 unique and highly experienced human beings die every day, 57 million every year—a staggering loss of diversity and complexity for our planet. While modern medical science has barely begun to make progress in preventing biological death, we have learned in recent decades how to easily and cheaply preserve the brain structures that encode our unique memories and personalities using high-fidelity plastination (chemopreservation), or chemical fixation and embedding in plastic for long-term storage. Very recently, we have also learned how to verify that these unique structures have been successfully preserved. Due to its low cost (likely much less than a casket burial, perhaps even less than $5,000), simplicity of storage (in cemetaries, with commercial services, or even in private homes if the law allows), and its unique validation ability (circuit-level verification), brain (or body) plastination may become an option for anyone who would choose to exercise it in coming years. Due to these recent advances, Ken Hayworth, myself, and several others have created the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF), a nonprofit to administer the Brain Preservation Prize, a series of awards for breakthroughs in brain preservation technology and services.
For those who wish to preserve their brains today for US$50,000 or greater cost, vitrification-based cryonics is a current real option that has seen some technical improvement in recent decades. But with respect to the critical consumer adoption factors of cost, simplicity, dependability, and validation, it is plastination that seems uniquely likely to make dramatic progress in the next few years. Neuroscientists engaged in brain mapping projects around the world are today using, improving, and verifying plastination technologies for small pieces of neural tissue. Speaking simply from a technical perspective, if funding were available, circuit-level plastination of a whole mouse brain, Part A of the Prize, could possibly be demonstrated as early as next year, and of a human-sized animal brain, Part B of the Prize, a year or two later. Once it is eventually proven, elective plastination might become available in a number of countries shortly thereafter. By mid-century, if it is technically validated, we can envision and demand that inexpensive brain preservation be available globally to any who might desire it, as an elective medical procedure in hospitals and hospices around the world. Eventually, wealthier countries may even offer it within universal health care as a free and basic human right.
How might a typical plastination process occur? In a hospital or hospice setting, the first step that would presently be required is rapidly infusing a very small crosslinking or “fixative” chemical, usually formaldehyde or glutaraldehyde, throughout the brain’s circulatory system shortly after an individual’s death. These chemicals are so small they quickly penetrate the interiors of all cells, just like water, and cross-link or "fix" cellular proteins, preventing their degradation. The second step, which can occur hours later in a non-hospital setting, is to perfuse a dangerous and toxic chemical, osmium tetroxide, to fix the lipids, or fats, in the cells. The third step is to perfuse a plastic resin, another very small molecule, in increasing concentrations throughout the brain, then to let the resin cure, turning the brain into a “perfect fossil.” If all the morphology and molecular structures look like they are still there under electron microscopy, in the right locations and distributions, then we have successfully preserved the brain, as far as we know today.
Why might anyone want to do this? There are a wide range of reasons and motivations for preserving our brains, which are the essence of our unique individual experiences and identities. Perhaps the most compelling near-term reasons are for the advancement of science. Several institutions are developing technology necessary to map neural connectivity, with the eventual goal of creating a ‘human connectome’, a circuit-level map of an entire human brain. Whole brain preservation is a necessary prerequisite to this important goal, and large-scale brain donations will be necessary to understand the scope of human mental variation. Better maps of our connectome may also significantly advance the field of artificial intelligence, and allow us to create computers capable of more useful and complex tasks. Some may preserve their brains to help preserve their culture, and advance our understanding of human experience in the future, or in pursuit of a more scientific, learning-oriented, or free society.
Some who either have objections to or a lack of interest in being revived in the future as a conscious person, may decide instead to leave their life's memories and experiences for their loved ones, to be accessed from their preserved brains at a later date. Some may be convinced by their children to do this, to lessen the grief of their passing, as an extension of the virtual memorials we see today. Even today neuroscientists can reconstruct accurate mental images from very small populations of neurons, as few as 177 neurons in the LGN of a cat, far too few to be conscious. In the future, we should be able to extract whole memories and experiences from the static connectivity of the preserved brain, in combination with a deep understanding of the common, or “baseline” brain that all human beings share as members of the same species.
Some, perhaps an increasing fraction of future generations, will preserve their brains with the desire to have their identities and consciousness revived and “uploaded” into a future robotic or virtual body or “reintegrated” into a future biological body. This group tends to hold the belief that their identities, consciousness and experiences are resident in their ever-changing patterns, not in their matter—they are identity "patternists," not "materialists"—and they recognize that human beings have not only biological, but also primitive digital selves (our online identities, recorded media, computers, cellphones and other personal technologies), and the latter are clearly accelerating in their complexity and intimacy of connection to our biological selves every year.
Finally some, being deeply uncertain of the future, but aware of the
great loss of complexity that would otherwise occur, may choose to inexpensively
preserve their brains now, in a kind of Pascal's
Wager, and leave the issue of what to do with their preserved brains
to future generations, or even to their increasingly intelligent digital
to decide. Those who die without wills today, presently a majority even
in developed nations, implicitly take a “society trusting”
approach, so “preserve now, decide the rest later” may be
common, and is perhaps the most modest and conservative choice as well.
All of these and other responses seem reasonable once inexpensive, simple,
and verified brain preservation emerges, and such options should be available
to any who might desire them in a free and ethical society.
Just as we seek to preserve vanishing cultures and viewpoints today, we will increasingly come to recognize the great personal and social value of brain pattern preservation. To those seeking major ways to improve the human condition today, making the brain preservation option available and affordable to all, so that we all have free choice to exercise it or not, is a future very much worth fighting for.
If the Prize is won within the next few years, as we hope it will be, we will have powerful evidence that the essential elements of human memories and identity can be inexpensively preserved for future recovery and reanimation, possibly even just decades from now. Were such an event to occur, the Brain Preservation Foundation would begin to strongly advocate for global brain preservation affordability and access, including legal advocacy as necessary. The Foundation is an instrument for all of us to donate money, time, and effort to advance this cause. We hope you will join us, however you feel able, in our work to promote, better fund and execute this Prize, to support the international teams who will labor to win it, and to do our part to make brain preservation a real and inexpensive option for all in coming years.
If you would like to help, let us close with A Few Things You Can Do:
1. Volunteer to help the
BPF team with prize fundraisingor outreach. Let
us know how you think you might help.