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Resurrecting the brain for a better afterlife

Last updated on: April 12, 2011 12:41 IST

Resurrecting the brain for a better afterlife

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Leslie DMonte

Ken Hayworth, a cognitive neuroscientist, has the difficult task of juggling two hats on his head, or should we say brain.

With the first one, he and his colleagues at Harvard University are working on enhancing the power of an instrument that automates the mapping of brain tissues to answer a fundamental question that still faces neuroscience: How are the 100 billion neurons wired in the brain and how they know what function to perform?

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Image: Ken Hayworth is studying how 100 billion neurons are wired in the brain.
Photographs: Reuters
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If you think that's difficult to digest, ponder over the bigger objective that Hayworth has on his mind - not as a Harvard post-doctoral student but as the president of The Brain Preservation Foundation: "My personal long-term goal is to upload a human mind into a machine. I think it's the larger conclusion of neuroscience. This means, I can put a specific mind into a robot."

At Harvard, Hayworth and Jeff Lichtman (project head) have developed the Automatic Tape-Collecting Lathe Ultra-microtome to allow efficient nano-scale imaging of large brain tissue volumes.

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Image: Hayworth wants to upload mind into machine.
Photographs: Reuters
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A microtome is an instrument that allows materials to be cut into thin slices or sections for later staining and imaging in a scanning electron microscope.

The ATLUM (now just ATUM) will ultimately enable neuroscientists to understand the brain's function by mapping the basic neuronal circuits.

"Neuroscientists want to map the brain to find out how the 100 billion neurons are wired up and how they produce functions.

"The first-generation instrument was a tape-collection mechanism, which I built."

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Image: Neuroscientists want to map basic neuronal circuits.
Photographs: Reuters
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It cost me $200,000 and was very difficult to use. I have now taken the tape-collection (crucial part) technology and shrunk it down into a version called the ATUM," said Hayworth.

This new version costs just $10,000 to build and hooks on to a commercial ultra-microtome and gives laboratories the ability to collect thousands of ultra-thin sections and then use standard electron microscopes to do very large-scale mapping "because we can cut a cubic millimetre of tissue in a week, though some reliability issues remain".

Hayworth's liking for the brain started when he was in high school.

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Image: Hayworth's liking for brain started in high school.
Photographs: Reuters
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"I was extremely interested in space travel and wanted to go to the nearest star. I got books to find out how to make a starship to travel to the nearest star, but was very disappointed to realise that it was virtually impossible to do that (it will take around 50,000 years to travel with today's technology and the human biological form is not suitable for such a travel).

"It was around that time that I picked up a book on 'neural networks' and it hit me that if we could extract the matter from our bodies as information, we would be able to transmit it at the speed of light to the nearest star... like a large radio transmitter that can beam the brain. That's the genesis of my interest in neuroscience," he said.

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Image: He wanted to extract matter from body as information.
Photographs: Reuters
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But is uploading the mind into a robot or an exoskeleton possible?

"Most people think that the brain is inscrutable but that hypothesis is wrong so far," asserts Hayworth.

In the next five years, he is confident of seeing an entire human brain preserved chemically and embedded in plastic.

This brain, he explains, can eventually be automatically cut into ultra-thin strips and scanned at very fast rates and high resolutions.

With these maps, neuroscientists can figure out how the neurons are wired and how they create memories, skills and personalities.

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Image: Hayworth wants to see entire human brain preserved chemically.
Photographs: Reuters
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"With advancement in technology, you will have enough information to reconstruct the information process that is going on inside the brain and you will be able to understand where the memories, skills and the overall function are stored.

"You can then put all that into a computer, and hook it to a robotic body and flip the switch on. Because it's a direct copy of the individual human brain, that simulation of the brain will be conscious, have the same memories, same skills, personality, etc - from a materialistic point, it will be the same person," says Hayworth.

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Image: He says brain's process can be reconstructed.
Photographs: Reuters
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The original person will be quite dead, but you can create as many copies of that person with this simulation, he adds.

Hayworth, however, has not yet been able to sell his idea effectively.

Many neuroscientists do not agree that a mind can live outside a biological body.

They believe that the mind is too complex to understand. Even those that grudgingly believe that the mind can be uploaded are not sure if it will be the same person.

"They don't believe that a mechanical simulation of the brain would not be conscious, and even if it would be, it won't be the same person," says Hayworth.

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Image: Hayworth says a human being can be copied.
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Hayworth, on his part, argues that the uploaded mind would be the same person "and I believe that my argument rests on what is standard in neuroscience textbooks - that consciousness is a function of the information processing going on in the brain".

"If this uploaded copy of you has the same memories, same skills and same personality, you have to agree that it's the same individual and this is a method of preserving someone's life," he says.

But Hayworth is convinced that once the scientific and medical community understands that brain preservation techniques (cryonics or plastination) are successful in preserving "high-quality brains", people will come around the idea eventually.

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Image: Hayworth is convinced scientists will agree to preserving high-quality brains.
Photographs: Reuters
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He admits, though, that legal problems will remain (currently, one can't preserve a brain before a person is legally dead).

Regardless, he has announced a prize of $106,000 to anyone who can preserve a large mammalian brain such that all the synaptic connections are intact using today's technology.

Two major laboratories are competing for the prize, says Hayworth, adding: "We have to image that brain and verify that claim ourselves. For this, we will need the help of labs and more money. Currently, I have zero money in the bank."

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Image: He admits, though, that legal problems will remain.
Photographs: Reuters
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But he is optimistic that "this message will resonate. I have been talking to some very wealthy people (who do not want to disclose their identities currently).

"They believe in this and want to see credibility. Once people start seeing results in brain preservation, there will be more converts".

"Today, we are expendable creatures of evolution. Science tells us that we are here to propagate DNA molecules on to the next generation. I see this as a prison that we are born in, by the fact that we are biological beings.

"But we have consciousness, emotions and feelings. This technology will give us the ability to break out of that prison and not have to grow old, be subject to disease, depression, etc," says Hayworth.

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Image: He says technology will stop us from growing old or getting sick.
Photographs: Reuters
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He gives the analogy of a computer, wherein you buy a new hard drive for your old data.

"An uploaded mind will not age and could be vastly more intelligent. An uploaded mind in a robot can explore a well of happiness that we are locked away from in our biological confines," said Hayworth.

"Do we care about our genes or wiring programme? We care about our soul - and science tells us that the soul is a collection of our memories, personality traits and skills, all of which are coded in the neural circuitry.

"That's what we really are and that's the thing that brain preservation and mind uploading will succeed in doing," he said.

(The author, on a sabbatical from Business Standard, is an MIT Knight Science Journalism Research Fellow 2010-11)


Image: Uploaded mind will not age and will be more intelligent.
Photographs: Reuters
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