It’s hard to pitch a product when part of the deal is that you will absolutely, 100 percent die if you become a customer. That’s an integral part of what Nectome is offering, though. This Y Combinator startup wants to give you the chance to live forever — sort of. To take advantage of what Nectome bills as a service to back up your mind, they have to kill you first. It’s a tough sell, but some people are already lining up.
The goal of Nectome’s service is to allow its customers to live on after their physical bodies die by preserving their brains with unprecedented accuracy. The company muses that in the indistinct future, it will be possible to scan a preserved brain and copy it into a computer (or maybe even a humanoid robot). The problem: Nectome is banking on unknown advances in the future to get that done. All it’s concerned with is making sure your brain lasts a few hundred to a few thousand years.
Nectome’s process could accurately be described as high-tech embalming combined with cryonics. Company co-founder Robert McIntyre calls it aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation, and it doesn’t sound like a pleasant process. The patient (customer?) is sedated and hooked up to an artificial heart-lung machine. Then, a chemical preservative is pumped in through the carotid artery. The patient will die shortly thereafter, but the brain is exquisitely well-preserved. This is very different than simple cryonics, which causes damage to the cells in order to preserve the tissue.
Nectome recently won an $80,000 government grant after showing that it could preserve a pig brain so well that all the synapses were intact and visible with electron microscopy.It also got $960,000 from the NIH to develop its full-brain preservation tech. Nectome claims it can preserve brains at the nanometer level, retaining every cell and all its connections for later analysis. That can be thousands of connections per cell, which is more data than we can process let alone simulate in a computer right now. Maybe not in the future, though.
The team from Nectome also recently preserved a human cadaver brain as a proof of concept, but the body was several hours old at the time. For its technology to have any chance of bringing you back from the dead, your brain has to be locked in at the moment of death. The cells are totally dead, and even Nectome in its boundless optimism isn’t suggesting your brain will be reanimated in another body. However, if you believe you are the meat between your ears, then scanning every synapse in a brain could amount to a copy of your very being.
Would any of this work? It certainly requires some faith in the future progress of humanity and wrestling with some weighty existential questions, but 25 people have already paid a refundable $10,000 deposit to have their brains preserved by Nectome. Performing the procedure on a live person is still years away — if it happens at all. Nectome has examined California’s End of Life Option Act and believes it will be legal to preserve brains in a way that kills the patient. The first people to undergo brain preservation will be terminally ill, but who knows what the future holds?
This is either wild out-of-the-box thinking or the prelude to a dystopian future like the above video. We’ll have to wait and see.
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