Giulio Prisco is a futurist, theoretical physicist, and computer scientist. He writes about science, technology, and the future. He's also a cofounder of Space Cooperative.
Cryonics pioneer Linda Chamberlain could become a virtually immortal superwoman, but she must choose how: There’s more than one way.
Earlier this month, the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) announced that the final phase of the Brain Preservation Prize has been won by a cryobiology research team led by Robert McIntyre (Disclosure: I am an adviser to the Brain Preservation Foundation). The same researchers won the preliminary Small Mammal Brain Preservation Prize two years ago. McIntyre co-founded the startup Nectome to further develop the technology.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, after the initial story about the startup from MIT Technology Review, the tabloid press has jumped on McIntyre’s startup with sensationalized headlines, suggesting that Nectome is offering to digitize your brain for $10,000 but has to kill you first, or something like that. This is, as it should be evident from the BPF and Nectome websites, false.
The procedure used, known as Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation (ASC), is designed to preserve the “connectome,” the complete wiring diagram of the brain, which is believed by some neuroscientists to encode memory and personal identity. In a few decades or a few centuries at most, according to top scientists such as Stephen Hawking, future technology could permit copying the information encoded in a preserved brain, and uploading the mind to advanced supercomputers.
“It's theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer and so provide a form of life after death,” said Hawking. "However, this is way beyond our present capabilities."
Persuaded that our capabilities will advance without limits, Linda Chamberlain and her late husband Fred founded Alcor Life Extension Foundation in 1972. Alcor is the largest service provider for cryonics—the practice of freezing “patients” immediately after death, in the hope that future technology will bring them back to life.
Fred Chamberlain was cryopreserved by Alcor in 2012. “This is probably the last piece of ‘self-launched’ email you’ll get from me,” he emailed me and other friends a few days before. “See you somewhere in the future!!!”
ASC is also known as “vitrifixation” because it's a two part process, fixation and vitrification. First, the chemical fixative glutaraldehyde is used to rapidly solidify synapses and prevent decay. Then, the antifreeze chemical ethylene glycol is used to turn the brain into a vitreous (glass-like) solid, able to withstand long-term cryogenic storage at very low temperature.
ASC can be seen as next-generation cryonics, but also as an alternative form of cryonics—“cryonics for uploaders”—designed for future post-biological revival. The “uploaders” are those who are happy with the prospect of coming back to life as sentient software running on future supercomputers.
“Let that sink in…,” BPF President Ken Hayworth said in an email to the BPF advisory team. “ASC, if properly applied TODAY, could preserve the information content of a human brain for indefinitely-long storage.”
The catch (there’s always one) is that the chemical fixation step is deadly—it kills living cells. “While ASC produces clearer images than current methods of vitrification without fixation, it does so at the expense of being toxic to the biological machinery of life by wreaking havoc on a molecular scale,” reads an Alcor position statement.
Vitrification without fixation is the cryonics procedure currently used by Alcor. “It may remain unclear to some whether this research and associated prizes show whether ASC or current vitrification without pre-fixation is more likely to preserve cell structures and molecular structures necessary for memory and personal identity,” continues Alcor’s position statement.
Chamberlain and other cryonics enthusiasts may eventually have to choose between vitrification with, or without, pre-fixation. The first option optimizes the preservation of the connectome, and therefore the possibility of mind uploading, at the expense of the possibility of biological revival. The second option optimizes the preservation of the organic body in a revivable form, at the expense of the accurate preservation of the connectome. To those who take these things seriously (I am very much of one), it’s literally a matter of life and death.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that scientific advances could blur the difference between the two methods. It could become possible, for example, to undo chemical fixation and repair its damage to organic tissue. Eric Drexler, the “father of nanotechnology,” proposed a form of vitrifixation for cryonics use in his 1986 cult book “ Engines of Creation,” envisioning future nanorobots able to systematically repair all molecular damage.
“Assuming that nanotechnology will be required for revival, how much difference will there really be between reviving a brain that has been preserved with ASC and one that has been preserved with vitrification only?,” Chamberlain emailed me. “I'm not sure ASC is only for uploaders.”
Similarly, the connectome of a brain that has been vitrified without pre-fixation could still be viable for mind uploading, with only minor damage that could be fixed. Promising preliminary indications have been demonstrated by Natasha Vita-More and Daniel Barranco in experiments on memory recall in C. elegans worms after vitrification and reviving.
ASC is still confined to research labs, but there’s already talk of deploying it in the field. “I believe it is the responsibility of the scientific and medical community to develop ASC into a reliable medical procedure as soon as possible,” said Hayworth.
It’s worth emphasizing that ASC doesn’t require extreme cold for short-term storage: After chemical fixation, a brain can be preserved at room temperature without significant decay “for weeks, months, or perhaps even a year or two,” according to Nectome.
This has the important implication of permitting to simplify operational procedures, and in particular the critical initial steps. “Because ASC uses perfusion fixation as its first step it avoids the main complications of cryonics which has always been a delicate race to increase CPA [CryoProtectant Agent] concentration while simultaneously lowering temperature,” Hayworth emailed me. “The ASC procedure is simple by comparison - just do everything at room temperature and take as long as you need to ensure uniform fixation and CPA concentration.”
There’s also the possibility that technical advances could eventually permit long-term storage of preserved brains at room temperature. In fact, an alternative procedure that doesn’t require cryogenic storage was a close second in the Brain Preservation Prize.
“I think it is possible that a room temperature storage option will eventually be developed that can transition ASC-preserved brains to room temperature storage,” Hayworth emailed me. This would help with another important issue in current cryonics: cost. Alcor is currently charging $200,000 for full-body preservation, $80,000 for brain-only preservation, and other providers charge lower but still significant fees.
Contrary to the practice, current in the cryonics industry, of starting work only after a patient’s certified legal death to avoid regulatory and legal complications, Hayworth is persuaded that ASC should be performed on a living brain before death to ensure optimal results. “[The] ASC procedure should be viewed as a form of doctor assisted [death],” he said. Of course, this is likely to require long and delicate negotiations with the medical establishment and the regulatory authorities - a challenge that, I believe, Hayworth underestimates.
But Hayworth is adamant in his conviction that ASC must be developed within the scientific and medical mainstream, and deployed under regulatory oversight, without workarounds like offshoring ASC to countries with loose medical ethics, or like only offering the procedure after legal death. Eventually, pre-mortem ASC could be offered in US states and countries that allow doctor-assisted death, following all applicable rules and regulations.
“Taking the shortcut of performing ASC on legally dead patients simply because it avoids all of the animal tests, medical journal publications, medical ethics debates, etc. is the surest way to kill ASC’s chances of being widely accepted,” Hayworth emailed me. “If you take that shortcut and start offering ASC prematurely then you may be responsible for thousands of lives lost. Do not do it. Do not try to do an end-run around the standard medical procedure development process or the medical ethics debates.”
Last Sunday I organized a meeting in Second Life to discuss new prospects in cryonics for uploaders with Chamberlain, Hayworth, Alcor CEO Max More, Natasha Vita-More, Robin Hanson, William Sims Bainbridge, and a small crowd of informed enthusiasts of cryonics and mind uploading. A video recording of the meeting, the first of many intense discussions to come, is on YouTube.
McIntyre co-founded the startup Nectome to extend ASC studies to human brains in a research context, develop a verified memory preservation protocol, and offer ASC preservation services to patients in the US when the time is right.
“Vitrifixation today is a great research tool, but needs more research and development before anyone considers applying it in a clinical context,” McIntyre emailed me. “Vitrifixation, also known as ASC, has been demonstrated to preserve the connectomes of animals, but this is just the first step towards clinical use. Like any new surgical technique, vitrifixation and its derivatives need to be reviewed by the medical and scientific community. Feedback from neuroscientists and thoughtful discussion from medical ethicists must be incorporated.”
“Additional tests for various kinds of efficacy beyond ultrastructure preservation (including preservation of proteomic and genomic information) should be completed and will provide critical information on vitrifixation’s capabilities,” continued McIntyre. “We believe that clinical human brain preservation has immense potential to benefit humanity, but only if it is developed in the light with input from medical and neuroscience experts. We believe that rushing to apply vitrifixation today would be extremely irresponsible and hurt eventual adoption of a validated protocol.”
Contrary to what has been suggested by some in the press, Nectome and the BPF intend to play by the rules of the scientific and medical community to win mainstream acceptance of ASC, which according to Hayworth and McIntyre could be achieved in only a few years.
But after that, if the establishment is unresponsive or hostile, it seems inevitable that less scrupulous providers will eventually step in, perhaps in offshore jurisdictions with little—if any—patient protection and quality control.