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Your Brain on Immortality

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How'd you like to live forever? The question is sparking more serious scientific debate than ever before. But this time, it's not mind uploading or anti-aging that's spurring argument. It's a new kind of approach.

The plan is to chemically hit the "pause" button on a living human brain, then preserve microscopic slices capturing every detail: every protein, every synapse, every neuron. These perfectly preserved slices will then await future technologies that can reconstruct a functioning brain -- and your consciousness -- from the data these slices contain.

Or at least, so says Kenneth Hayworth.

Who is Ken Hayworth? Good question. I can tell you he started his career by racking up a dozen or so patents at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. From there he headed for the University of Southern California, where, as a grad student, he invented and patented a new kind of brain scanner. I could also mention that he's been working at Harvard lately, researching the human brain's visual system. But none of that would explain what Ken Hayworth is all about.

Because the main thing you need to know about Ken Hayworth is this: He thinks neuroscience will make us immortal. Farfetched? He's not denying it. But impossible? That, he says, is a much tougher question to answer.

Take connectomics, for example. Over the past decade or so, data on the brain's microscopic wiring has been flooding into labs faster than anyone can catalogue or study it; so connectomics, a new branch of neuroscience, has sprung up around this data. Backed by multimillion-dollar grants, connectomics researchers design new software just to crunch this wealth of numbers -- and to develop neuron-by-neuron simulations of our brain's most elaborate behavior. And it's connectomic technology, Hayworth says, that makes his plan for immortality feasible.

"[Connectomics] will open up possibilities we've never dreamed of," Hayworth says. "Other neuroscientists will come around when they see the massive amounts of connectome data that we're generating, and they'll say, 'Wow, the future has arrived.'"

In that future, as Hayworth explains it, we'll take a much less permanent view of death. Anyone who's ready to leave his or her aging body will, after a cheerful "going-away" party, relax under anesthesia, then be filled with a chemical that fixes every molecule in the brain in place. A staining solution will be injected to make cell membranes more visible under a microscope. Finally, all the water will be drained from the brain and spinal cord, to be replaced with plastic resin."The most perfectly preserved fossil imaginable," Hayworth says -- and one that, in the still more distant future, he hopes will enable you to be revived.

It's not a view that's won Hayworth many converts, even in the connectomics community. For instance, MIT's Sebastian Seung counters that while a connectome is a scientific concept, selfhood remains a philosophical one; in other words, the former is a data set that can be examined in a lab, while the latter is a purely subjective experience. Until we develop scientific techniques for examining subjective consciousness (or life after death) in a lab, Seung says, "it's just your word against mine" as to who -- or what -- would wake up in that resurrected brain. Olaf Sporns, the neuroscientist who coined the term "connectomics," is even more blunt: "I am not my connectome," he says.

Despite their skepticism, Seung, Sporns, and other prominent neuroscientists continue to sit on the foundation's advisory board. After all, they say, Hayworth's obsession has already inspired its share of brain imaging breakthroughs, and it's likely to lead to more. It's tempting to cite the old saying about babies and bathwater -- and to point out that in this particular case, the baby is widely considered a genius.

Then, of course, there's that other old saying, the one about genius and insanity. But "science has tremendous self-correcting mechanisms," as Sporns says. "Truly crazy ideas never go far, but unconventional ideas do sometimes push forward the boundaries of knowledge. So I salute Ken's courage and hope he continues to push the envelope."

The whiff of curiosity, subtle though it may be, is hard to deny.