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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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

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

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?

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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

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