Eternal life via Connectomics

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading a book called “Connectome” which argues that the essence of a human being can be understood to be the way their billions of neurons hook up to each other. The idea presumes that if you can map someone’s neural structure and recreate it (in a biological or electronic model), you would essentially be creating a clone of their mind.

With this idea in mind, we can contemplate ways of living forever. If we can maintain the map of our connectome after we die, we (conceivably) could be re-animated in some form via future technology and be the same person. The problem is that it’s hard to maintain the connectome after death – cellular damage can destroy the map. One way to get around this might be to “freeze” our brains in plastic soon after death – so soon that we would have to do it in a controlled situation; essentially we would have to choose to kill ourselves to have a chance at living forever.

That’s what Kenneth Hayward, a futurist with impressive science credentials, would like to do.

That case is deeply speculative. Here’s how Hayworth envisions his own brain-preservation procedure. Before becoming “very sick or very old,” he’ll opt for an “early ‘retirement’ to the future,” he writes. There will be a send-off party with friends and family, followed by a trip to the hospital. “I’m not going in for some back-alley situation. We need to get the science right to convince the medical community. It’s a very clear dividing line: I will not advocate any technique until we have good proof that it works.”

After Hayworth is placed under anesthesia, a cocktail of toxic chemicals will be perfused through his still-functioning vascular system, fixing every protein and lipid in his brain into place, preventing decay, and killing him instantly. Then he will be injected with heavy-metal staining solutions to make his cell membranes visible under a microscope. All of the water will then be drained from his brain and spinal cord, replaced by pure plastic resin. Every neuron and synapse in his central nervous system will be protected down to the nanometer level, Hayworth says, “the most perfectly preserved fossil imaginable.”

His plastic-embedded brain will eventually be cut into strips, perhaps using a machine like the one he invented, and then imaged in an electron microscope. His physical brain will be destroyed, but in its place will be a precise map of his connectome. In 100 years or so, he says, scientists will be able to determine the function of each neuron and synapse and build a computer simulation of his mind. And because the plastination process will have preserved his spinal nerves, he’s hopeful that his computer-generated mind can be connected to a robot body.

Easy as pie.

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