Once the realm of schlocky sci-fi, brain preservation is getting real.
Neuroscientists are pursuing new methods for preserving brains for future revival. They're being spurred on by visions of post-humans and a cash prize that's now well over $100,000.
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Someone always seems to be hot on the trail of human immortality, but this time the competitors aren't elusive billionnaires or Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. The neuroscientists vying for the Brain Preservation Foundation's Tech Prize have impressive credentials and come to the table with published research.
Their approach is also the opposite of existing cryonic human-preservation services.
The Foundation challenges neuroscientists to start with an effective animal model. The longterm goal: Rigorously demonstrate a surgical technique that can completely - and inexpensively - preserve a whole human brain for more than 100 years in a way that keeps neuronal processes and synaptic connections intact. Plus, you must use current electron microscopic imaging techniques.
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Two competitors have stepped up to the plate so far. They are Shawn Mikula, a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, and the Fontana, California-based cryobiology research company 21st Century Medicine.
Mikula is pursuing a chemical fixing process that he's been testing on whole mouse brains. Meanwhile, 21st Century Medicine has taken a cryopreservation approach that, in the simplest terms, involves infusing the brain with a fixative agent and soaking it in a chemical that prevents ice formation. The company imaged a whole rabbit brain preserved this way.
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"I am virtually certain that mind uploading is possible," neuroscientist and Brain Preservation Foundation president Ken Hayworth told Scientific American's Michael Shermer recently. "We are destined to eventually replace our biological bodies and minds with optimally designed synthetic ones."
Exciting and freaky, right? But Hayworth also conceded that a time when we have post-humans with "uploaded" minds is probably centuries away. We'll all be dead by then. Or, well, maybe not entirely.