Mind Travel

By Ankita Moss

Image courtesy to NIH Image Gallery
You’re a top-earning Silicon Valley CEO looking for ways to continue your legacy and memorialize all the struggles and successes that define you. You stumble upon a new Silicon Valley Y-Combinator-backed startup called Nectome that promises to make your knowledge and memories immortal. 

Easy, right? There are only two small prices to pay: an initial payment of $10,000 and an agreement to start the fatal process while you are still alive. 

Nectome uses vitrifixation, also known as Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation, to preserve your brain’s connectome, in hopes of translating your memories into a simulation after death. Nectome’s controversy is rooted in the fact that it aims to embalm your brain while it is still fresh (i.e. alive) as an attempt to carefully preserve your consciousness by uploading the brain anatomy to a computer. However, this claim has yet to be proven. 

One of the co-founders, Robert McIntyre, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a procedure to preserve the intricate connectome of a rabbit’s brain so meticulously that the synapses of the brain can be seen via electron microscopes. The preservation of the brain won the Brain Preservation Foundation’s Small Mammal Prize and a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health according to the MIT Technology Review

However, BBC recently reported controversy regarding Nectome’s partnership with MIT, indicating that MIT has officially decided to terminate the partnership, most likely due to suspicions regarding both the ethical implications and viability of the technology. After heavy criticism and the loss of a significant partnership, Nectome has admitted that its controversial feat will not be undertaken in humans until years from now. But this question still remains: is Nectome addressing the ethical quandaries and also accepting ethical responsibility for the possible outcome it claims to provide in the future? 

Nectome’s actual goal of cryogenically preserving a fresh human brain raises significant concerns that relate to the already ethically controversial topic of physician-assisted suicide, a process in which a physician assists the patient with ending his or her life through passive means, like administering lethal drug dosages. Additionally, it also raises integral philosophical questions, such as defining the role of consciousness in human personhood and whether Nectome’s feat would impact this definition.       
Image courtesy to Ávila, J, Wikimedia Commons
Nectome has tried to deflect some of this ethical controversy by attempting to target terminally ill patients who elect for physician-assisted suicide and by capitalizing on California’s End of Life Option Act passed two years ago. However, the questions still remain as to whether the terminally ill patient is competent enough to properly consent to a physician-assisted suicide and whether state laws properly account for these ethical implications. For example, Vermont and Colorado laws state that the patient can choose whether to participate in physician-assisted suicide, whereas the right to die is illegal under the state laws of Mississippi and Georgia. In this way, Nectome’s reliance on the physician-assisted suicide route is fraught with ethical and legal implications due to the start-up’s process currently being legal in only a handful of states. Laws also change. For example, California judge Daniel Ottolia recently overturned the physician assisted suicide law on the account that it was ethically controversial to open the door for the pressure and means for individuals to indirectly end their own lives. 

Due to such controversy, we must determine whether or not we agree with Nectome’s goals as a society. We must first assess whether a simulation can be considered a conscious mind and whether such a process has any broader benefit or purpose. The founders of Nectome have theorized that they will be able to create a simulation of the deceased individual’s conscious mind in the future. In this way, Nectome’s feat to preserve an individual’s consciousness raises the question of whether the conscious mind is housed in the brain. According to theoretical physicist Dr. Sebastian Seung and his Ted Talk on the connectome, an individual’s consciousness is housed within his or her connectome. In this way, Dr. Seung is in agreement with the founders of Nectome, in that an individual’s consciousness may be preserved in the future if the connections of the brain were mapped via a simulation. 

However, Dr. Alva Noe, philosopher and professor at UC Berkeley, proposes that individuals are in fact not their brains, but their interactions with the world. According to Dr. Noe’s definition of consciousness, Nectome is not striving to preserve an individual. Likewise, in my opinion, translating the connectome into a simulation will not produce a conscious being. I agree with Dr. Noe that consciousness is a dynamic process, whereas a preserved connectome is static. Moreover, there is no clear evidence that mapping the connectome of an individual will retrieve the memories the individual experienced. 

Image to Jared Rodriguez, Flickr
Even more ethically concerning is that Nectome is now claiming it will test organoids, artificially engineered tissues, along with simulations, as an option to house and restore consciousness. Organoids have become attractive to biotechnology companies; therefore, ethical concerns such as whether organoids can develop consciousness or personhood have already arisen (Farahany et. al, 2018). Even though brain organoid signaling is primitive, cells can differentiate into specific regions; therefore, as research progresses, clear legal boundaries must be drawn in order to define whether and to what extent bioengineered brains really constitute legal persons. More specifically, before we can even begin the legal personhood debate, we must first define whether consciousness, and with that, personhood, can be portrayed in an algorithm and transferred to artificial tissue. 

Nectome’s process and its promises have intrinsic legal, political, ethical, and scientific implications that do not bode well for us as a society. It would be foolish and irresponsible to terminate a life, even if chosen through physician-assisted suicide, based on Nectome’s controversial process and uncertainty in its outcome. 

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Ankita Moss is an undergraduate student at Emory University majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. Ankita has had a strong interest in neuroethics since high-school and hopes to contribute to the field professionally in the future. Aside from neuroscience and neuroethics, she is also very passionate about start-ups and entrepreneurship and founded the Catalyst biotechnology think-tank at Emory Entrepreneurship and Venture Management. Therefore, Ankita hopes to one day specifically navigate the ethical implications of neurotechnology startups and their impact on issues of identity and personhood. 


Want to cite this post?

Moss, A. (2018). Mind Travel. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/12/mind-travel.html

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