Upload Your Mind and Live Forever
The episode “San Junipero” of the British anthology series Black Mirror is described as one of “the best” (Meslow) and “most beautiful, cinematic [TV] episodes” (Butler) of 2016. The story begins in 1987 in the American beach town San Junipero and follows two young women—Yorkie and Kelly—who fall in love. The town is later revealed to be a simulated reality to which the consciousness of the dead are uploaded so they can live again as their younger selves. Living people can experience the simulation too, but they are limited to five hours a week so that they do not lose grip on reality (Harris). San Junipero becomes the place where an elderly Yorkie with quadriplegia and an elderly Kelly with a terminal illness get to be happy again and “find love… in a hopeful place” (Handlen).
The startup Nectome pitched in 2018 a service of preserving human brains “using a high-tech embalming process” with the idea that—in the future—scientists will scan them and convert them “into a computer simulation” in a data server (Regalado, “A Startup”). Nectome’s procedure would connect living people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine and pump embalming chemicals into their brain through their arteries to minimize damage and preserve as much tissue as possible (Regalado, “A Startup”). In February of the same year, Nectome successfully preserved the brain of a diseased elderly woman as a trial of their prospective service for terminally-ill patients undergoing doctor-assisted suicide (Regalado, “A Startup”).
“Mulder: Artificial life... It could exist. It could be here among us. Evolving.
Scully: Electrons chasing each other through a circuit? That isn't life, Mulder.
Mulder: Yeah but what are we but impulses? Electrical and chemical, through a bag of meat and bones. You're the scientist; you tell me.”
Kill Switch (1998), The X-Files
The company was founded by MIT graduates and has received more than $1 million dollars in funding, including $120,000 from Y Combinator (Regalado, “A Startup”) and more than $910,000 in federal grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for “whole-brain nanoscale preservation and imaging” and its potential “commercial opportunity” (“Whole Brain Nanoscale”). Although Nectome’s services are still “in the research phase” and unavailable to terminally-ill patients (Letzter), prospective customers can join a waiting list for a refundable deposit of $10,000 dollars (Regalado, “A Startup”). Some of them, like Y Combinator co-founder Sam Altman, assume that “their brain will be uploaded to the cloud” (Regalado, “A Startup”).
In 2016, a 21st Century Medicine project led by Robert McIntyre—Nectome’s co-founder—won a prize for preserving a rabbit brain with its “neurons and synapses … intact and visible” (Maldarelli), and in 2018, they won again for preserving a pig brain, thereby being awarded over $100,000 dollars (“Large Mammal”). Their aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation (ASC)—different from Nectome’s—uses “strong chemicals to first suspend” the brain (Maldarelli), then chill and store it at -135 degrees celsius, carefully stabilizing it for centuries (McIntyre and Fahy). Although their procedure makes “future revival of biological function impossible”, ACS could “prevent the destruction of the patient’s unique connectome”—the neural connections of human brain function—and could pave the way for technology capable of uploading a “person’s mind into a computer controlling a robotic, virtual, or synthetic body” (“Large Mammal”).
In 2018, an enthusiastic article about Nectome was published in MIT Technology Review, where McIntyre stated that the company’s brain preservation service is “100 percent fatal” (Regalado, “A Startup”). Three weeks later, MIT terminated a subcontract under an NIMH grant awarded to Nectome citing “public statements” and “the scientific premises underlying the company’s commercial plans” (Liberty). Edward Boyden, a leading neuroscientist at MIT, combined “aspects of Nectome's chemistry with the Boyden group's invention, expansion microscopy” to potentially facilitate drug discovery, circuit mapping, and brain banking (Liberty). MIT’s Media Lab also indicated that neuroscience has not ascertained the possibility “to recreate a person’s consciousness” and whether “any brain preservation method is powerful enough to preserve all the different kinds of biomolecules related to memory and the mind” (Liberty).
The pitch of uploading people’s minds is no longer advertised on Nectome’s website (Nectome), but the company believes that understanding the feeling of simulating consciousness “is an achievable goal” that cannot be promised soon (Letzter). To understand this will require major breakthroughs—but some scientists regard consciousness “as an unsolvable problem” (Liberty). Nectome currently focuses on elucidating how long-term memories are physically created as well as how they might be preserved and extracted (Begley). Making places like San Junipero a reality will be perhaps the result of an interdisciplinary approach from leading neuroscientists, Nectome, and Musk’s Neuralink—a controversial company dubbed “neuroscience theater” which is developing a real-time brain interface (Regalado, “Elon Musk’s Neuralink”).
Begley, Sharon. “After ghoulish allegations, a brain-preservation company seeks redemption.” STAT, 30 Jan. 2019, https://www.statnews.com/2019/01/30/nectome-brain-preservation-redemption/. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Butler, Bethonie. “The 10 best TV episodes of 2016, from ‘Black Mirror’ to SNL.” The Washington Post, 21 Dec. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/12/21/the-10-best-tv-episodes-of-2016/. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Handlen, Zack. “Black Mirror finds love (and a great episode) in a hopeful place.” The A.V. Club, 24 Oct. 2016, https://tv.avclub.com/black-mirror-finds-love-and-a-great-episode-in-a-hope-1798189275. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Harris, Owen, director. “Black Mirror: San Junipero.” Netflix, 2016.
“Large Mammal BPF Prize Winning Announcement”. The Brain Preservation Foundation, https://www.brainpreservation.org/large-mammal-announcement/. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Letzter, Rafi. “Brain-Uploading Company Has No Immediate Plans to Upload Brains.” Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/62212-nectome-grant-mit-founder.html. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Liberty, Janine. “Statement regarding the relationship between the MIT Media Lab and Nectome.” MIT Media Lab, 2 Apr. 2018, https://www.media.mit.edu/posts/the-media-lab-and-nectome/. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Maldarelli, Claire. “Researchers Have Preserved An Entire Rabbit Brain.” Popular Science, 9 Feb. 2016, https://www.popsci.com/researchers-have-preserved-an-entire-rabbit-brain/. Accessed 10 April 2021.
McIntyre, Robert L. and Gregory M. Fahy. “Aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation.” Crybiology, vol. 71, no. 3, 2015, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cryobiol.2015.09.003. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Meslow, Scott. “The Best TV Episodes of 2016.” GQ, 15 Dec. 2016, https://www.gq.com/story/best-tv-2016. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Nectome. https://nectome.com. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Regalado, Antonio. “A startup is pitching a mind-uploading service that is “100 percent fatal.” MIT Technology Review, 13 Mar. 2018, https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/03/13/144721/a-startup-is-pitching-a-mind-uploading-service-that-is-100-percent-fatal/. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Regalado, Antonio. “Elon Musk’s Neuralink is neuroscience theater.” MIT Technology Review, 30 Aug. 2020, https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/08/30/1007786/elon-musks-neuralink-demo-update-neuroscience-theater/. Accessed 10 April 2021.
“Whole Brain Nanoscale Preservation/Imaging”. NIH RePORTER, https://reporter.nih.gov/project-details/9355699. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Last Fact Checked on June 2nd, 2021.