Thursday, August 9, 2012

Brain Connectomes: Your ticket to the future


Science often provides us with thrilling and puzzling scenarios in which our imaginations are forced to conceive the possibilities the future may bring. Life after death is an old concept that is getting a facelift. The Connectome, a very real development in neuroscience, is being used to conceptualize another very interesting piece of science-[fiction]: mind uploading.

Image from http://www.mindcontrol.se/?attachment_id=3021

Fast-forward a few centuries. Bear with me, as this requires imagination. You have just died and are beginning the journey to the next stage of your life. For this trip, you won’t have to pack any bags. If all goes smoothly, you will be back home in time for the evening sitcoms. Your casket was lowered into the Earth this morning and because your driver’s license indicated ‘Continue Life’ you are scheduled for resurrection this afternoon. Suddenly, a message appears.

There are three ticket options for you today. Our Elite ticket (1 million USD) and our most comfortable ride in to the future comes with a wide assortment of amenities. While fully reinstating your memory, personality and acquired skills, you will be presented with the opportunity to make any adjustments you wish. A memory of violence, depression or hardship can simply be erased, liberating you from a particularly difficult moment. Using our advanced technology, we can also augment or sharpen certain memories with algorithms that accurately calculate how an event may have occurred. You will enjoy our most luxurious Back2LiFE Robotics model, the Elite Humanoid, which comes fully equipped with our AWAKE® (Automated Work And Knowledge Environment) interactive software, allowing you to sense the world and all its warmth, just as your previous body did.

The next option, the Premium ticket (600,000 USD), provides you with all of your memories and your personality. The Premium Back2LiFE model provides a full range of motion while also allowing you to interact with the world using the AWAKE® versions of the 5 human senses: touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. Upgrades for this plan are available at any time.

The Economy ticket (125,000 USD) allows you to return to life free of the weight of any memories or personality and you will enjoy our basic Back2LiFE model. Upgrades are not available for this plan…

The choice to Continue Life may not be so far away. While I am aware that this may sound a bit out there, I am not the only one who thinks like this. Tom Scott has created a video describing the process of coming back to life and I highly recommend watching it. It is a chilling, yet extremely believable take on what re-entry may look like and the choices the human race may someday face. There are many highly qualified individuals that belief life as we know it will end very soon. Ray Kurzweil believes that brain uploading will be possible by 2040. Transhumanism, continuation of life and something called the Singularity are all hot topics.

Before we enter this discussion I should preface with this: I do not intend to answer questions, proclaim that I know the answer or make any definitive suggestions on a future course of action. I am here to ask questions, prompt you to think, and hope that collectively, we can figure out what to do with this issue.

Image from http://fanart.tv/movie/2277/bicentennial-man/
If you have ever seen the Bicentennial Man, it may have changed the way you think about life, death or what it means to be ‘human.’ In short, Robin Williams, with all of his magnificent charm, is a robot of the 21st century with no greater desire than to become human. The film, filled with Williams’ knee slap humor and tear-jerking moments, outlines this ‘unique’ robot’s transition from machine to man. A key and defining factor is that in order for Williams to be recognized as human, he must be able to die. According to the film, the ability to die is the proof that says you had lived a human life.

Imagine for a moment the reverse of the process. Take an old and dying human body and turn it into a shining, advanced new machine. Upon death, all of a person’s thoughts, memories and emotions would be recorded, transferred, and translated into a mechanical body and the person would be brought back into consciousness. I am not saying that this is possible, plausible or that it will ever be, but there are people working very hard to make it so. Kenneth Hayworth, Ph.D., is one of those people. Dr. Hayworth graduated from University of Southern California before moving on to work at Harvard. A project that relates directly to his work is the Human Connectome Project, a $40-million collaborative study funded by the National Institute of Health. The goal of the project is to create a map of the entire brain, similar to what the Human Genome project set out to do with DNA. The Connectome project feeds into Dr. Hayworth’s theories, as he believes that an understanding of the brain’s infrastructure will help in its reconstruction. However, he understands that there is more. He says, “You can’t look at a road map of Manhattan and know what its like down there. You have to dig deeper.”

Scientists at Washington University, St. Louis, the University of Minnesota, UCLA and the Massachusetts General Hospital are doing the digging for the Human Connectome. They’re not digging for a source of immortality. Instead, they hope that a thorough understanding of the brain will unlock secrets to treating neuropathologies. At the University of Georgia and Emory University, connectomics is already is use. Tianming Liu (U.Ga) and his team have mapped the brain, using landmarks as they navigate through the dense network of cells. They call the landmarks DICCOL; dense individualized and common connectivity-based cortical landmarks. Dajiang Zhu, a student working on the project, says, “DICCOL is very similar to a GPS system. [It’s] a map of the human brain.”

Image from
http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/04/05/cercor.bhs072.full
Xiaoping Hu and Claire Coles at Emory University are collaborating with Liu and hope to use their map to compare ‘normal’ brains to the brains of children who were exposed to cocaine while in the womb. As you might expect, exposure to cocaine can be extremely harmful to children, with the potential to cause serious damage to their brain networks.

Brain mapping technology has huge potential. Consequently, there are many issues that it brings, some in the far future but several that are very relevant now. There are three major topics I will touch on: death, identity, and property. They are all interconnected within the scope of this discussion.

First, I will start with death, as it was the impetus for having this discussion. This is not the first time that someone has challenged the definition of death. Over the centuries as technology and medicine advance, our understanding of death has grown and changed. Before 1970, the main identifiers for death (and life, actually) were the cessation of cardiopulmonary function. As we push forward, we have come to see that a heartbeat and respiratory action signify that the brainstem is intact but higher brain function may be absent (think coma or persistent vegetative state). While the science is still disputed, it is generally understood that when the brain ceases to be active, the individual has died. We have yet to discover have to discover how to jumpstart the brain back into action, which has caused us to deem those without neural function as brain dead. Thus, we have another definition of death, looking beyond heart and lung function and into neural activity.

Brain uploading challenges both of the aforementioned definitions of death. After ‘conventional’ death, the possibility of returning to life makes me wonder if we actually died in the first place. It’s very tricky, actually. When biological death takes place, what can we say about our consciousness?

A less abstract thought to consider is the right to die. Currently, suicide and euthanasia are illegal in most countries and are controversial. As such, Dr. Hayworth and those who are riding his train of thought must wait to die before they can undergo pre-upload procedures. It would greatly increase the ability to harvest information from the brain if it could be taken before death to avoid any associated damages (cell death from lack of oxygen or damage from a head impact during an accident). So, should a person be allowed to undergo a ‘life-ending’ surgery with the intent (or perhaps hope is a better word) of returning to life in the future? On the other hand, should advanced directives be used, such that an individual can request to not be uploaded in the same way they can ask not to be resuscitated?

Dr. Hayworth’s plan has interesting religious implications. His kind of resurrection clashes with the after-life/next-life beliefs of many religions. Can Heaven, Hell or reincarnation exist if our minds are re-synthesized with science? In the brain-uploading situation, what appears to happen is one ‘consciousness’ dies and another is constructed (a bit like the movie The Prestige. If you haven’t seen it yet, pretend like you didn’t read that). You are then stuck with this tricky situation with identity and determining what really is going on here.

Dr. Hayworth has an interesting answer to this conundrum. Though he is answering in the context of creating multiple reincarnates, his thoughts apply here as well. As each new being is brought into awareness, they become their own individual. You could have two clones of the same person. As soon as they awake, they have both begun their own unique experience and instantly become distinct beings. As such, you are not faced with identical copies but two distinguishable persons. It’s similar to maternal twins; the reincarnates have the same physical make up and in this case, the same memories, but they will experience the world separately from each other.

So, perhaps you are not really coming back to life. Someone else is just picking up where you left off.

This transition makes for a very interesting scenario. As a 21-year-old college undergraduate, I have acquired a whole lot of stuff. By age 85-90, I imagine that I will have built upon my stash. When I die, I expect to write my possessions off in a will, distributing some here and there, or perhaps I will just be buried with the entirety of my estate converted into gold. Property I expect, would be turned over to a relative, sold or forfeited to the government. However, if I am coming back to life, can I just put everything on hold until I return? Do I get to keep my things after my biological death? For how long do I have to reclaim it? Can I decide to put it into storage for 200 years because I would really like to experience the 23nd century? Does my estate roll over? Does debt?

Image from
http://onlyhdwallpapers.com/high-definition-wallpaper/clones-desktop-hd-wallpaper-589675/
Then again, if it isn’t really ‘me’ who is coming back to life, does the reincarnate have rights to my estate? Who is going to make that call? While I cannot imagine why someone would want to leave his or her next-generation self in the dirt, say someone is low on cash but wants to ‘Continue Life.’ Can they use an IOU and promise that their reincarnate will pay for the costs of the procedure? Here’s a fun scenario: Why not get two reincarnates and let one work off the debt and have the other have some fun? You could turn yourself into an indentured servant. In this case, who is granted personhood as well as the rights and liberties of being a person? If there are three reincarnates, can all three vote in elections? It get’s quite messy quickly. The thought of these possibilities is terribly exciting and excitingly terrifying.

I know that many of the topics I touched on were skimmed over and deserve much more attention. I encourage you to dig deeper into these subjects, discuss them with your peers and let me know what you come up with. This is a huge topic and a full discussion would be well beyond the scope of this blog post. My goal was to bring up some questions, get people talking about this and let you readers find your own opinion. In the meantime, pay attention to connectomes and brain mapping, as I believe that they hold a lot of promise for the future of neuro-healthcare.



Want to cite this post?
Craig, E. (2012). Brain Connectomes: Your ticket to the future. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2012/08/brain-connectomes-your-ticket-to-future.html 

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