Nectome wants to back up your consciousness when you die. But now, after MIT cut ties with the company, its founders have emphasized to Live Science that they don't plan to actually attempt the feat anytime soon.
The startup came under criticism from a number of prominent neuroscientists, including two who spoke to Live Science, after a favorable article appeared in MIT Technology Review on March 13. At the center of the article was the company's promise of a "100-percent-fatal" service for backing up and (eventually) digitizing people's brains.
Nectome's founders told Technology Review that their goal is to figure out how to preserve the brains of dying people in incredible detail. To that end they had developed a process that could turn a brain into a shelf-stable version of itself, with all the links between its neurons visible under a scanning electron microscope. Those links, Nectome suggested, could one day be used to revive dead people's consciousnesses. [Top Ten Mysteries of the Mind]
The article revealed that Nectome had already consulted with lawyers about the legality, under California's physician-assisted suicide law, of using their methods on terminal patients. (Their preservation methods would kill anyone subjected to them.) Technology Review also touted Nectome's relationship with MIT Media Lab neuroscientist Ed Boyden, whose collaboration with the company appears to have ended according to an MIT announcement.
In an email to Live Science this morning (April 3), Nectome co-founder Robert McIntyre said the company had no plans to actually do this in the foreseeable future.
"We have not nor do we plan to administer embalming fluids on a living animal or human," he wrote.
A reference to being able to "back up" people's minds, along with other ambitious language, appears to have disappeared from Nectome's website. It has been replaced with more cautious wording and a statement emphasizing that Nectome's current research represents just a "promising first step" toward its eventual goals.
McIntyre also said that an earlier article from Live Science, stating that the "company wants to flood the arteries of living people who have terminal illnesses with embalming fluid to preserve their brain tissue" gave people the incorrect impression that Nectome is currently doing this.
"I want people to understand that we're currently in the research phase, and that rushing to apply ASC [aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation] today would be irresponsible," he wrote.
Nectome, founded by MIT graduates and supported by the famous Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator, has received more than $915,000 in grant funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The company has worked with Boyden, under the now-cancelled subcontract agreement, to achieve something genuinely impressive: preserving a pig's brain well enough that every one of its neural links was intact and visible under a scanning electron microscope. The accomplishment won the company an $80,000 prize from The Brain Preservation Foundation.
The pig brain is a big deal because if you manage to preserve a creature's brain at that level of detail, you've preserved what neuroscientists call its "connectome." A connectome is a map of all the links between nerves in a brain; it describes, at the very least, the routes by which signals get around inside the skull, if not the content of the signals themselves.
The suggestion that the connectome offered enough information about the brain that it might be used to revive people was the core of what rankled many neuroscientists.
"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," Sam Gershman, a Harvard neuroscientist, previously told Live Science.
"It's true that synapses are where all the action happens," Florida State University neuroscientist Jens Foell previously told Live Science. "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."
Not every neuroscientist had such a negative take on the company and its claims. Sebastian Seung, a connectome expert and neuroscientist at Princeton University, has been a somewhat lonely public voice defending the company, both on Twitter and in emails to Live Science.
He has argued that while it may be unlikely that Nectome's technique could preserve enough information to revive memories and consciousness, other neuroscientists can't know for certain that it doesn't.
(Seung does not have direct involvement in Nectome, but a video of his TED Talk on the connectome appears on Nectome's website, and he was part of the panel that awarded the company its prize for the preserved pig.)
McIntyre, in his email to Live Science, said it wasn't correct that Nectome expected to revive a whole consciousness from the connectome.
"We at Nectome are big fans of the connectome. Our name, Nectome, literally comes from the word connectome. But we don't mean to imply that electron microscope image data is the only thing we would need to reconstruct consciousness or even memories," he wrote, adding, "The connectome is not the only step, but it is the vital first step towards putting together biologically and informationally accurate models of brains."
MIT's statement announcing it had ended its subcontract with Nectome explicitly criticized the company's scientific claims.
"…Currently, we cannot directly measure or create consciousness," the MIT statement said. "Given that limitation, how can one say if, for example, a computer or a simulation is conscious?"
The statement also suggests it may be possible to one day simulate consciousness in a computer but that currently, the company does "not know how to determine what such a simulation, even if scaled up to the size of the human brain, would 'feel' like. To understand this will require new science that represents a nonlinear jump from the neuroscience occurring today, and some people regard this as an unsolvable problem (aka the 'hard problem' of consciousness)."
When asked to comment on MIT's statement, McIntyre wrote, "Neuroscience has historically progressed by a mixture of sustaining innovation (which I suspect is what is meant by 'occurring today') and disruptive innovation (nonlinear jumps). We believe that understanding what a simulation feels like is an achievable goal, and it's part of our vision, though clearly not what can be promised today."
Right now, Nectome has more immediate obstacles to overcome.
The company's active NIMH grant is "in transition" following MIT's announcement, McIntyre wrote.
"We cannot comment on precisely what that means, as that remains to be determined with MIT, NIMH, and Nectome," he said. However, he added, "Our high-level plans for Nectome are still the same: to continue developing tools like ASC [the preservation process], and to advance the field of neuroscience as best we can through our research."
As for the company's relationship with MIT, he made it clear that Nectome didn't see the end of the subcontract as a closed door.
"We understand their hesitance to continue working with us at this time, and we hope that they will choose to work with us again sometime in the future," he wrote.
Originally published on Live Science.