MIT announced today (April 2) that it has severed a subcontract with Nectome, a company that says it will preserve the brains of dying people in order to revive them in the future.
MIT's announcement stated that it is cutting off a subcontract that involved the university in Nectome's grant-funded research through MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden's lab. Nectome has received more than $915,000 in grant funding from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Live Science reported on the company's "100-percent-fatal" brain-preserving service in March. Neuroscientists Live Science interviewed at the time were deeply skeptical, saying that there is no reason to believe the deadly service would actually make it possible to revive a person in the future. [Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal with the Dead]
Remarkably, MIT's announcement also includes a detailed critique of Nectome's research, beginning by stating, "Neuroscience has not sufficiently advanced to the point where we know whether any brain preservation method is powerful enough to preserve all the different kinds of biomolecules related to memory and the mind. It is also not known whether it is possible to recreate a person’s consciousness."
The university also said that Boyden "has no personal affiliation — financial, operational, or contractual — with the company Nectome."
Nectome's plans sounded outlandish, but its MIT-graduate founders boasted of the involvement of high-profile MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden. As MIT Technology Review reported in a flattering profile of the company published March 13, Nectome has already won a prize for successfully preserving the nerve network, or connectome, of a dead pig. And the company later tried out its process on the 2.5-hour-old corpse of an elderly woman. In the future, Nectome plans to preserve the brains of living people, as a means of physician-assisted suicide.
The theory behind Nectome's ultimate goal is that a well-preserved connectome, or map of all the links between a brain's nerves, might contain enough information for future scientists to digitize and use to re-create a dead person's consciousness. When Technology Review published its article, a number of tech and science publications jumped on the story, repeating the grisly, fatal service's most ambitious claims.
However, neuroscientists Live Science previously spoke to were deeply skeptical.
"The important question," Harvard neuroscientist Sam Gershman said, "is whether the connectome is sufficient for memory: Can I reconstruct all memories knowing only the connections between neurons? The answer is almost certainly no, given our knowledge about how memories are stored — itself a controversial topic."
Florida State University neuroscientist Jens Foell previously told Live Science that key information would be lost in preserving the connectome.
"It's true that synapses are where all the action happens," he said. "But cell firing behavior is determined by other things, including processes within the cells that are determined by proteins that are much smaller than synapses — and some of them are short-lived)."
A number of neuroscientists publicly criticized Nectome, as well as other researchers who had worked with them or implicitly supported them.
It's worth noting that not every neuroscientist agrees that Nectome's promises are total bunk.
Following the earlier article, Sebastian Seung, a connectome expert at Princeton University, wrote an email to Live Science offering some support for Nectome.
"I agree that the Nectome route is far-fetched," he wrote. "But I can see someone making a rational judgement that Nectome is better than the alternatives: 1) normal death with zero probability of revival and 2) Alcor with no demonstration of connectome preservation."
(Alcor is a cryonics company that freezes bodies after death.)
Seung, whose Ted Talk appears on Nectome's website, but who isn't directly involved in the company, also debated at length with Nectome's critics on Twitter.
Epsilon probability. But value of afterlife is extremely large for some. So expected value could still turn out large when computed by these people. It's the contemporary version of Pascal's Wager.— Sebastian Seung (@SebastianSeung) March 20, 2018
Neither MIT nor Nectome immediately responded to questions from Live Science about the parting of ways.
Originally published on Live Science.