Posts Tagged ‘death’

Near-death experiences, or NDEs, are significant psychological events that occur close to actual or perceived impending death. Commonly reported aspects of NDEs include out of body experiences, feelings of transitioning to another world and of inner peace, many of which are also reported by users taking DMT.

DMT is a potent psychedelic found in certain plants and animals, and is the major psychoactive compound in ayahuasca, the psychedelic brew prepared from vines and used in ceremonies in south and central America.

Researchers from Imperial College London set out to look at the similarities between the DMT experience and reports of NDEs. Their findings, published today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, reveal a large overlap between those who have had NDEs and healthy volunteers administered DMT.

As part of the trial, the team looked at 13 healthy volunteers over two sessions, who were given intravenous DMT and placebo, receiving one of four doses of the compound. The research was carried out at the NIHR Imperial Clinical Research Facility. All volunteers were screened and overseen by medical staff throughout.

Researchers compared the participants’ experiences against a sample of 67 people who had previously reported actual NDEs and who had completed a standardised questionnaire to try and quantify their experiences. The group were asked a total of 16 questions including ‘Did scenes from your past come back to you?’ and ‘Did you see, or feel surrounded by, a brilliant light?’.

Following each dosing session, the 13 healthy volunteers filled out exactly the same questionnaire to find out what sort of experiences they had whilst on DMT and how this compared to the NDE group.

The team found that all volunteers scored above a given threshold for determining an NDE, showing that DMT could indeed mimic actual near death experiences and to a comparable intensity as those who have actually had an NDE.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who leads the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial and supervised the study, said: “These findings are important as they remind us that NDE occur because of significant changes in the way the brain is working, not because of something beyond the brain. DMT is a remarkable tool that can enable us to study and thus better understand the psychology and biology of dying.”

Professor David Nutt, Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial, said: “These data suggest that the well-recognised life-changing effects of both DMT and NDE might have the same neuroscientific basis.”

PhD candidate Chris Timmermann, a member of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial and first author of the study, said: “Our findings show a striking similarity between the types of experiences people are having when they take DMT and people who have reported a near-death experience.”

The researchers note some subtle, but important differences between DMT and NDE responses, however. DMT was more likely to be associated with feelings of ‘entering an unearthly realm’, whereas actual NDEs brought stronger feelings of ‘coming to a point of no return’. The team explain that this may be down to context, with volunteers being screened, undergoing psychological preparation beforehand and being monitored through in a ‘safe’ environment.

“Emotions and context are particularly important in near-death experiences and with psychedelic substances,” explains Timmermann. “While there may be some overlap between NDE and DMT-induced experiences, the contexts in which they occur are very different.”

“DMT is a potent psychedelic and it may be that it is able to alter brain activity in a similar fashion as when NDEs occur.”

“We hope to conduct further studies to measure the changes in brain activity that occur when people have taken the compound. This, together with other work, will help us to explore not only the effects on the brain, but whether they might possibly be of medicinal benefit in future.”

https://www.technologynetworks.com/neuroscience/news/powerful-psychedelic-compound-models-near-death-experiences-in-the-brain-307638?utm_campaign=NEWSLETTER_TN_Neuroscience_2017&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=65211042&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_szeHBJKSgWgl_SDBvWrV8ncLN5bzJ6mkDQpNXKHOwtLpcxo_Vp3gC6mytMbuTKLxvvbahYFeA9RFa28pxLHQs18Nimg&_hsmi=65211042

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By Ayana Archie and Jay Croft

A female orca whale is still apparently grieving her dead calf and still swimming with its body after more than two weeks, authorities say.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch,” said Michael Milstein of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s West Coast Region. “This kind of behavior is like a period of mourning and has been seen before. What’s extraordinary about this is the length of time.”

The adult — Tahlequah, or J35 as the whale has come to be known by researchers — and corpse were last seen definitively Thursday afternoon, 17 days after the baby’s birth. The female calf died after a few hours.

The mother, preventing the body from sinking to the ocean floor, has been carrying it and nudging it toward the surface of the Pacific off the coast of Canada and the northwestern US.
Orcas, also called killer whales, are highly social, and this pod was spotted Friday afternoon near Vancouver, British Columbia.

Another struggling female in the same pod — J50, also known as Scarlet — was shot with antibiotics to fight an infection, since scientists worry that she has been losing a frightening amount of weight.

These are grim signs. The Southern Resident population the females belong to has about 75 members, and has not had a successful birth in three years. In the last 20 years, only 25% of the babies have survived.

‘Deep feelings’ not uncommon

Scientists says grieving is common among mammals such as whales, dolphins, elephants and deer. Evidence shows the orca brain is large, complex and highly developed in areas dealing with emotions, said Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project.

“It’s not surprising they’re capable of deep feelings, and that’s what (Tahlequah) is showing,” Marino said. “What exactly she’s feeling we’ll never know. But the bonds between mothers and calves are extremely strong. Everything we know about them says this is grieving.”

Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb said it’s “unprecedented” for an orca to keep this going for so long. He said the mother has traveled more than 1,000 miles with the corpse, which has begun to decompose.

“It is a grief, a genuine mourning,” he said.

Dwindling food source

The problem for this group of killer whales is a dwindling food supply, scientists say. Most killer whales eat a wider diet, but this particular group of about 75 resident orcas eats just salmon, which have been overfished in the area for commercial consumption. Manmade contraptions, like hydroelectric power sources, block the salmons’ path to release eggs.

Exacerbating the problem is that orcas do not have babies often or in large numbers, and when they do, it is a long process. It takes a calf a little under a year and a half to fully develop in the womb, and they nurse for another year. They must learn to swim right away, Balcomb said, and rely on their mothers for food for several years — first through nursing, then through providing fish.

“Extinction is looming,” Balcomb told CNN last month, but it is not inevitable if humans restore salmon populations and river systems in time.

https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/10/us/orca-whale-still-carrying-dead-baby-trnd/index.html

Suicide rates and temperatures are both on the rise, but are these two occurrences connected? A new study suggests maybe so. The research revealed hotter-than-average months corresponded to more deaths by suicide—and the effect isn’t limited to the summer, even warmer winters show the trend.

In the study, published in Nature Climate Change, the investigators looked at all of the suicides that occurred in the U.S. and Mexico over several decades (1968 to 2004 for the U.S. and 1990 to 2010 for Mexico), comprising 851,088 and 611,366 deaths, respectively. They then observed how monthly temperature fluctuations over these periods in every county or municipality in both countries correlated to the suicide rates for that region. They discovered that for every 1-degree Celsius (1.8-degree Fahrenheit) rise in temperature, there was a 0.7 percent increase in suicide rates in the U.S. and a 2.1 percent increase in Mexico, averaging a 1.4 percent increment across both countries. That is, over the years, a given county would see more deaths by suicide in warmer-than-average months.

Notably, the average temperature of the county did not matter; for example, Dallas and Minneapolis saw a similar rise in suicide rates. The effect did not depend on the month either—it made no difference whether it was January or July. There was also no difference between gender, socioeconomic status, access to guns, air-conditioning and whether it was an urban or rural region. Across the board, when temperatures rose in a given place, so did the number of suicides.

“A lot of times when you hear about climate change and climate change impacts, you hear this catch phrase ‘climate change is going to generate winners and losers,’” says study author Marshall Burke. “Some people could benefit from climate change, the idea being if you live in a really cold location, sometimes things improve when you warm it up a little bit. We do not find that for suicide.” He continues, “Climate change in terms of suicide is not going to generate winners and losers, it’s just going to generate losers. Everyone, as far as we can tell—no matter whether you live in a cold place or live in a hot place—everyone is going to be harmed in terms of suicide risk when we increase the temperature.”

If climate change continues on its current trajectory with an estimated temperature increase of 2.5 degrees C (4.5 degrees F) by 2050, Burke, who is an assistant professor of earth system science at Stanford University, projects suicide rates would rise by 1.85 percent, resulting in an additional 21,770 deaths by suicide across the U.S. and Mexico. For comparison, economic recession is thought to increase suicide rates by 0.8 percent whereas news of celebrity suicides accounts for a 4.6 percent bump in rates.

Not everyone is convinced by these projections, though. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says, “I think it’s an interesting and provocative idea. These two things may be co-occurring. You know, it’s possible that the rate of suicide is going up as the temperature is going up. But we don’t know that there’s anything causal about that.”

In their study the researchers speculate there could be some biological effect linked to temperature regulation in the brain that alters mental health and could underlie the correlation. In an attempt to connect mental well-being with temperature change more generally, they examined more than 600 million Twitter posts for depressive language over a 14-month period. The researchers again found hotter months corresponded to a higher probability of using depressive language. Prior work by the researchers also saw a similar trend in interpersonal conflict, with a 4 percent rise in violence attributed to climate change.

Burke acknowledged suicide is a complex phenomenon and temperature is certainly not the only or even the most important factor affecting mental health: “What studies like ours contribute is just saying on average, as you increase temperature, what’s going to happen to suicide rates? So that won’t tell you with utmost certainty what’s going to happen in specific locations, but it will tell you okay on average this is what we should expect. Our view is it would be foolhardy to ignore the evidence,” he notes.

Radley Horton, an associate research professor at Columbia University who was not involved in the research, says the study is a good reminder of how fundamental temperature is and how widespread its impacts are. “The deeper we look, the more likely we are to uncover ways that temperature directly impacts things we care about,” he says. “Climate uncertainty is not our friend. The further we push things, the greater the risk.”

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/global-warming-linked-to-higher-suicide-rates-across-north-america/

by Elie Dolgin

There might be no natural limit to how long humans can live — at least not one yet in sight — contrary to the claims of some demographers and biologists.

That’s according to a statistical analysis published Thursday in Science1 on the survival probabilities of nearly 4,000 ‘super-elderly’ people in Italy, all aged 105 and older.

A team led by Sapienza University demographer Elisabetta Barbi and University of Roma Tre statistician Francesco Lagona, both based in Rome, found that the risk of death — which, throughout most of life, seems to increase as people age — levels off after age 105, creating a ‘mortality plateau’. At that point, the researchers say, the odds of someone dying from one birthday to the next are roughly 50:50 (see ‘Longevity unlimited’).

“If there is a mortality plateau, then there is no limit to human longevity,” says Jean-Marie Robine, a demographer at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research in Montpellier, who was not involved in the study.

That would mean that someone like Chiyo Miyako, the Japanese great-great-great-grandmother who, at 117, is the world’s oldest known person, could live for years to come — or even forever, at least hypothetically.

Researchers have long debated whether humans have an upper age limit. The consensus holds that the risk of death steadily increases in adulthood, up to about age 80 or so. But there’s vehement disagreement about what happens as people enter their 90s and 100s.

Some scientists have examined demographic data and concluded that there is a fixed, natural ‘shelf-life’ for our species and that mortality rates keep increasing. Others have looked at the same data and concluded that the death risk flattens out in one’s ultra-golden years, and therefore that human lifespan does not have an upper threshold.

Age rage

In 2016, geneticist Jan Vijg and his colleagues at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City rekindled the debate when they analysed the reported ages at death for the world’s oldest individuals over a half-century. They estimated that human longevity hit a ceiling at about 115 years — 125 tops.

Vijg and his team argued2 that with few, if any, gains in maximum lifespan since the mid-1990s, human ageing had reached its natural limit. The longest known lifespan belongs to Jeanne Calment, a French super-centenarian who died in 1997 at age 122.

Experts challenged the statistical methods in the 2016 study, setting off a firestorm into which now step Barbi and Lagona. Working with colleagues at the Italian National Institute of Statistics, the researchers collected records on every Italian aged 105 years and older between 2009 and 2015 — gathering certificates of death, birth and survival in an effort to minimize the chances of ‘age exaggeration’, a common problem among the oldest old.

They also tracked individual survival trajectories from one year to the next, rather than lump people into age intervals as previous studies that combine data sets have done. And by focusing just on Italy, which has one of the highest rates of centenarians per capita in the world, they avoided the issue of variation in data collection among different jurisdictions.

As such, says Kenneth Howse, a health-policy researcher at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in the United Kingdom, “these data provide the best evidence to date of extreme-age mortality plateaus in humans”.

Ken Wachter, a mathematical demographer at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of the latest study, suspects that prior disputes over the patterns of late-life mortality have largely stemmed from bad records and statistics. “We have the advantage of better data,” he says. “If we can get data of this quality for other countries, I expect we’re going to see much the same pattern.”

Robine is not so sure. He says that unpublished data from France, Japan and Canada suggest that evidence for a mortality plateau is “not as clear cut”. A global analysis is still needed to determine whether the findings from Italy reflect a universal feature of human ageing, he says.

Off limits

The world is home to around 500,000 people aged 100 and up — a number that’s predicted to nearly double with each coming decade. Even if the risk of late-life mortality remains constant at 50:50, the swelling global membership in the 100-plus club should translate into a creep upwards in the oldest person alive by about one year per decade, says Joop de Beer, a longevity researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute in The Hague.

Many researchers say they hope to better understand what’s behind the levelling off of mortality rates in later life. Siegfried Hekimi, a geneticist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, speculates that the body’s cells eventually reach a point where repair mechanisms can offset further damage to keep mortality rates level.

“Why this plateaus out and what it means about the process of ageing — I don’t think we have any idea,” Hekimi says.

For James Kirkland, a geriatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the strong evidence for a mortality plateau points to the possibility of forestalling death at any age. Some experts think that the very frail are beyond repair. But if the odds of dying don’t increase over time, he says, interventions that slow ageing are likely to make a difference, even in the extremely old.

Not everyone buys that argument — or the conclusions of the latest paper.

Brandon Milholland, a co-author of the 2016 Nature paper, says that the evidence for a mortality plateau is “marginal”, as the study included fewer than 100 people who lived to 110 or beyond. Leonid Gavrilov, a longevity researcher at the University of Chicago in Illinois, notes that even small inaccuracies in the Italian longevity records could lead to a spurious conclusion.

Others say the conclusions of the study are biologically implausible. “You run into basic limitations imposed by body design,” says Jay Olshansky, a bio-demographer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noting that cells that do not replicate, such as neurons, will continue to wither and die as a person ages, placing upper boundaries on humans’ natural lifespan.

This study is thus unlikely to be the last word on the age-limit dispute, says Haim Cohen, a molecular biologist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel. “I’m sure that the debate is going to continue.”


Jan Carette and his colleagues have discovered a “death code” that unleashes a type of cell death.

Dying cells generally have two options: go quietly, or go out with a bang.

The latter, while more conspicuous, is also mechanistically more mysterious. Now, scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have pinpointed what they believe is the molecular “code” that unleashes this more violent variety of cell death.

This particular version of cell suicide is called necroptosis, and it typically occurs as a result of some sort of infection or pathogenic invader. “Necroptosis is sort of like the cell’s version of ‘taking one for the team,’” said Jan Carette, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology. “As the cell dies, it releases its contents, including a damage signal that lets other cells know there’s a problem.”

Seen in this light, necroptosis seems almost altruistic, but the process is also a key contributor to autoimmune diseases; it’s even been implicated in the spread of cancer.

In a new study, Carette and his collaborators discovered the final step of necroptosis, the linchpin upon which the entire process depends. They call it “the death code.”

Their work, which was published online June 7 in Molecular Cell, not only clears up what happens during this type of cell death, but also opens the door to potential new treatments for diseases in which necroptosis plays a key role, such as inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. Carette is the senior author, and postdoctoral scholar Cole Dovey, PhD, is the lead author.

Initiating detonation

When a cell’s health is threatened by an invader, such as a virus, a cascade of molecular switches and triggers readies the cell for death by necroptosis. Until recently, scientists thought they had traced the pathway down to the last step. But it turns out that the entire chain is rendered futile without one special molecule, called inositol hexakisphosphate, or IP6, which is part of a larger collection of molecules known as inositol phosphates. Carette likens IP6 to an access code; only in this case, when the code is punched in, it’s not a safe or a cellphone that’s unlocked: It’s cell death. Specifically, a protein called MLKL, which Carette has nicknamed “the executioner protein,” is unlocked.

“This was a big surprise. We didn’t know that the killer protein required a code, and now we find that it does,” Dovey said. “It’s held in check by a code, and it’s released by a code. So only when the code is correct does the killer activate, puncturing holes in the cell’s membrane as it prepares to burst the cell open.”

MLKL resides inside the cell, which may seem like an error on evolution’s part; why plant an explosive in life’s inner sanctum? But MLKL is tightly regulated, and it requires multiple green lights before it’s cleared to pulverize. Even if all other proteins and signaling molecules prepare MLKL for destruction, IP6 has the final say. If IP6 doesn’t bind, MLKL remains harmless, like a cotton ball floating inside the cell.

When it’s not killing cells, MLKL exists as multiple units, separate from one another. But when IP6 binds to one of these units, the protein gathers itself up into one functional complex. Only then, as a whole, is MLKL a full-fledged killer. It’s like a grenade split into its component parts. None of them are functional on their own. But put back together, the tiny bomb is ready to inflict damage.

“We’ve come to realize that, after the cell explodes, there are these ‘alarm’ molecules that alert the immune system,” Dovey said. “When the cell releases its contents, other cells pick up on these cautionary molecules and can either shore up defenses or prepare for necroptosis themselves.”

Screening for the Grim Reaper

In their quest to understand exactly how necroptosis occurs, Carette and Dovey performed an unbiased genetic screen, in which they scoured the entire genome for genes that seemed to be particularly critical toward the end of the pathway, where they knew MLKL took action. Before the IP6 finding, it was known that an intricate pathway impinged on MLKL. But only through this special genetic screen, in which they systematically tested the function of every gene at this end stage, were they able to see that IP6 was the key to necroptosis.

“Genetic screens are a lot of fun because you never know what you’re going to get,” Carette said. “We feel quite excited that we’ve been able to pinpoint IP6.”

Their screen revealed that IP6 binds with especially high specificity. Other similar versions of inositol phosphate, such as IP3, didn’t pass muster, and when bound to MLKL had no effect. This gave Carette an interesting idea. For conditions like irritable bowel disease, in which erroneous necroptosis contributes to the severity of the disease, it would be desirable to disable IP6 from binding under those conditions. Perhaps blocking the binding site, or tricking MLKL into binding to one of the other versions of inositol phosphate, could do the trick. Either way, Carette and his collaborators are now digging further into the structure of IP6 bound to MLKL to better understand exactly how the killer is unleashed.

“In terms of drug discovery, inositol phosphates have been somewhat ignored, so we’re really excited to be able to look into these small molecules for potential therapeutic reasons,” Carette said.

https://www.technologynetworks.com/cell-science/news/cellular-death-code-identified-304850?utm_campaign=Newsletter_TN_BreakingScienceNews&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=63609833&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9qdyzMcEm3q0J6mlEARWf6NhG5b_3NFqLfwxNaoJ8n6Y4bATQcn5d8BjpMNJZ4EFWXploBzGufQZD5OhVtNnjSDPtCtQ&_hsmi=63609833


An electronics repair company gives a compassionate farewell to mechanical pets, with a traditional ceremony held in a historic temple.

By James Burch
A traveler happening upon a funeral for robot dogs might be taken aback.

Is this a performance art statement about modern life? Is it a hoax? A practical joke?

But this is actually a religious ceremony, and the emotions expressed by the human participants are genuine.

A dog-shaped robot—as opposed to say, a dish on wheels with a built-in vacuum cleaner—represented a focus on entertainment and companionship. When Sony released the AIBO (short for “artificial intelligence robot”) in 1999, 3,000 units—the greater share of the first run—were sold to the Japanese market. At an initial cost of $3,000 in today’s money, those sold out in 20 minutes.

But AIBOs never became more than a niche product, and in 2006 Sony canceled production. In seven years, they’d sold 150,000 of the robots.

Some AIBO owners had already become deeply attached to their pet robots, though. And here is where the story takes an unexpected turn.

AIBOs aren’t like a remote-control car. They were designed to move in complex, fluid ways, with trainability and a simulated mischievous streak. (Meet Sophia, the robot that almost seems human.)

Over time, they would come to “know” their human companions, who grew attached to them as if they were real dogs. (Learn how playing games helped build the modern world.)

The AIBOs’ programs included both doggish behaviors, like tail-wagging, and humanlike actions, such as dancing, and—in later models—speech.

So when Sony announced in 2014 that they would no longer support updates to the aging robots, some AIBO owners heard a much more somber message: Their pet robot dogs would die. The community of devoted owners began sharing tips on providing care for their pets in the absence of official support.

Nobuyuki Norimatsu didn’t intend to create a cyberhospital. According to Nippon.com, the former Sony employee, who founded the repair company A-Fun in a Chiba Prefecture, a Tokyo suburb, simply felt a duty to stand by the company’s products. (Watch sunlight create a heart inside a Chiba Prefecture cave.)

And then came a request to repair an AIBO. Nippon.com reports that, at first, no one knew exactly what to do, but months of trial and error saw the robodog back on its feet. Soon, A-Fun had a steady demand for AIBO repairs—which could only be made by cannibalizing parts from other, defunct AIBOs.

Hiroshi Funabashi, A-Fun’s repairs supervisor, observes that the company’s clients describe their pets’ complaints in such terms as “aching joints.” Funabashi realized that they were not seeing a piece of electronic equipment, but a family member.

And Norimatsu came to regard the broken AIBOs his company received as “organ donors.” Out of respect for the owners’ emotional connection to the “deceased” devices, Norimatsu and his colleagues decided to hold funerals.

A-Fun approached Bungen Oi, head priest of Kōfuku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Chiba Prefecture’s city of Isumi. Oi agreed to take on the duty of honoring the sacrifice of donor AIBOs before their disassembly. In 2015, the centuries-old temple held its first robot funeral for 17 decommissioned AIBOs. Just as with the repairs, demand for funeral ceremonies quickly grew.

The most recent service, in April 2018, brought the total number of dearly departed AIBOs to about 800. Tags attached to the donor bodies record the dogs’ and owners’ names.

Services include chanting and the burning of incense, as they would for the human departed. A-Fun employees attend the closed ceremonies, serving as surrogates for the “families” of the pets, and pliers are placed before the robodogs in place of traditional offerings like fruit. Robots even recite Buddhist sutras, or scriptures. (Meet a master of Japanese Tea Ceremony.)

According to Head Priest Oi, honoring inanimate objects is consistent with Buddhist thought. Nippon.com quotes the priest: “Even though AIBO is a machine and doesn’t have feelings, it acts as a mirror for human emotions.” Speaking with videographer Kei Oumawatari, Oi cites a saying, “Everything has Buddha-nature.”

AIBOs and similar robots are especially popular among the elderly, and limited research hints that robots could potentially act like therapy animals—though attachment to machines could also be a symptom of loneliness, an increasing concern in Japan. (READ: Will a robot be your friend or steal your job?)

Sony has now introduced a new line of more advanced AIBOs, and although they are apparently not technologically compatible with their predecessors, it would seem they stand a good chance of finding similar popularity with those who can appreciate the soul of a machine.

Though AIBO funerals are closed to the public, travelers in Japan can at other times visit the Isumi’s historic Kōfuku-ji, one of several temples in the region including work by the master wood carver IHACHI. Isumi tourist info (Click on “Select Language” in the upper right for English.)

To learn about other personal robots, such as Paro, a therapeutic seal-bot, visit the permanent exhibit “Create your future” at Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/asia/japan/in-japan–a-buddhist-funeral-service-for-robot-dogs/

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

by Antonio Regalado

The startup accelerator Y Combinator is known for supporting audacious companies in its popular three-month boot camp.

There’s never been anything quite like Nectome, though.

Next week, at YC’s “demo days,” Nectome’s cofounder, Robert McIntyre, is going to describe his technology for exquisitely preserving brains in microscopic detail using a high-tech embalming process. Then the MIT graduate will make his business pitch. As it says on his website: “What if we told you we could back up your mind?”

So yeah. Nectome is a preserve-your-brain-and-upload-it company. Its chemical solution can keep a body intact for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, as a statue of frozen glass. The idea is that someday in the future scientists will scan your bricked brain and turn it into a computer simulation. That way, someone a lot like you, though not exactly you, will smell the flowers again in a data server somewhere.

This story has a grisly twist, though. For Nectome’s procedure to work, it’s essential that the brain be fresh. The company says its plan is to connect people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine in order to pump its mix of scientific embalming chemicals into the big carotid arteries in their necks while they are still alive (though under general anesthesia).

The company has consulted with lawyers familiar with California’s two-year-old End of Life Option Act, which permits doctor-assisted suicide for terminal patients, and believes its service will be legal. The product is “100 percent fatal,” says McIntyre. “That is why we are uniquely situated among the Y Combinator companies.”

There’s a waiting list

Brain uploading will be familiar to readers of Ray Kurzweil’s books or other futurist literature. You may already be convinced that immortality as a computer program is definitely going to be a thing. Or you may think transhumanism, the umbrella term for such ideas, is just high-tech religion preying on people’s fear of death.

Either way, you should pay attention to Nectome. The company has won a large federal grant and is collaborating with Edward Boyden, a top neuroscientist at MIT, and its technique just claimed an $80,000 science prize for preserving a pig’s brain so well that every synapse inside it could be seen with an electron microscope.

McIntyre, a computer scientist, and his cofounder Michael McCanna have been following the tech entrepreneur’s handbook with ghoulish alacrity. “The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide,” he says. “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”

Nectome’s storage service is not yet for sale and may not be for several years. Also still lacking is evidence that memories can be found in dead tissue. But the company has found a way to test the market. Following the example of electric-vehicle maker Tesla, it is sizing up demand by inviting prospective customers to join a waiting list for a deposit of $10,000, fully refundable if you change your mind.

So far, 25 people have done so. One of them is Sam Altman, a 32-year-old investor who is one of the creators of the Y Combinator program. Altman tells MIT Technology Review he’s pretty sure minds will be digitized in his lifetime. “I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud,” he says.

Old idea, new approach

The brain storage business is not new. In Arizona, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation holds more than 150 bodies and heads in liquid nitrogen, including those of baseball great Ted Williams. But there’s dispute over whether such cryonic techniques damage the brain, perhaps beyond repair.

So starting several years ago, McIntyre, then working with cryobiologist Greg Fahy at a company named 21st Century Medicine, developed a different method, which combines embalming with cryonics. It proved effective at preserving an entire brain to the nanometer level, including the connectome—the web of synapses that connect neurons.

A connectome map could be the basis for re-creating a particular person’s consciousness, believes Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist who is president of the Brain Preservation Foundation—the organization that, on March 13, recognized McIntyre and Fahy’s work with the prize for preserving the pig brain.

There’s no expectation here that the preserved tissue can be actually brought back to life, as is the hope with Alcor-style cryonics. Instead, the idea is to retrieve information that’s present in the brain’s anatomical layout and molecular details.

“If the brain is dead, it’s like your computer is off, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t there,” says Hayworth.

A brain connectome is inconceivably complex; a single nerve can connect to 8,000 others, and the brain contains millions of cells. Today, imaging the connections in even a square millimeter of mouse brain is an overwhelming task. “But it may be possible in 100 years,” says Hayworth. “Speaking personally, if I were a facing a terminal illness I would likely choose euthanasia by [this method].”

A human brain

The Nectome team demonstrated the seriousness of its intentions starting this January, when McIntyre, McCanna, and a pathologist they’d hired spent several weeks camped out at an Airbnb in Portland, Oregon, waiting to purchase a freshly deceased body.

In February, they obtained the corpse of an elderly woman and were able to begin preserving her brain just 2.5 hours after her death. It was the first demonstration of their technique, called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation, on a human brain.

Fineas Lupeiu, founder of Aeternitas, a company that arranges for people to donate their bodies to science, confirmed that he provided Nectome with the body. He did not disclose the woman’s age or cause of death, or say how much he charged.

The preservation procedure, which takes about six hours, was carried out at a mortuary. “You can think of what we do as a fancy form of embalming that preserves not just the outer details but the inner details,” says McIntyre. He says the woman’s brain is “one of the best-preserved ever,” although her being dead for even a couple of hours damaged it. Her brain is not being stored indefinitely but is being sliced into paper-thin sheets and imaged with an electron microscope.

McIntyre says the undertaking was a trial run for what the company’s preservation service could look like. He says they are seeking to try it in the near future on a person planning doctor-assisted suicide because of a terminal illness.

Hayworth told me he’s quite anxious that Nectome refrain from offering its service commercially before the planned protocol is published in a medical journal. That’s so “the medical and ethics community can have a complete round of discussion.”

“If you are like me, and think that mind uploading is going to happen, it’s not that controversial,” he says. “But it could look like you are enticing someone to commit suicide to preserve their brain.” He thinks McIntyre is walking “a very fine line” by asking people to pay to join a waiting list. Indeed, he “may have already crossed it.”

Crazy or not ?

Some scientists say brain storage and reanimation is an essentially fraudulent proposition. Writing in our pages in 2015, the McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks decried the “abjectly false hope” peddled by transhumanists promising resurrection in ways that technology can probably never deliver.

“Burdening future generations with our brain banks is just comically arrogant. Aren’t we leaving them with enough problems?” Hendricks told me this week after reviewing Nectome’s website. “I hope future people are appalled that in the 21st century, the richest and most comfortable people in history spent their money and resources trying to live forever on the backs of their descendants. I mean, it’s a joke, right? They are cartoon bad guys.”

Nectome has received substantial support for its technology, however. It has raised $1 million in funding so far, including the $120,000 that Y Combinator provides to all the companies it accepts. It has also won a $960,000 federal grant from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health for “whole-brain nanoscale preservation and imaging,” the text of which foresees a “commercial opportunity in offering brain preservation” for purposes including drug research.

About a third of the grant funds are being spent in the MIT laboratory of Edward Boyden, a well-known neuroscientist. Boyden says he’s seeking to combine McIntyre’s preservation procedure with a technique MIT invented, expansion microscopy, which causes brain tissue to swell to 10 or 20 times its normal size, and which facilitates some types of measurements.

I asked Boyden what he thinks of brain preservation as a service. “I think that as long as they are up-front about what we do know and what we don’t know, the preservation of information in the brain might be a very useful thing,” he replied in an e-mail.

The unknowns, of course, are substantial. Not only does no one know what consciousness is (so it will be hard to tell if an eventual simulation has any), but it’s also unclear what brain structures and molecular details need to be retained to preserve a memory or a personality. Is it just the synapses, or is it every fleeting molecule? “Ultimately, to answer this question, data is needed,” Boyden says.

Demo day

Nectome has been honing its pitch for Y Combinator’s demo days, trying to create a sharp two-minute summary of its ideas to present to a group of elite investors. The team was leaning against showing an image of the elderly woman’s brain. Some people thought it was unpleasant. The company had also walked back its corporate slogan, changing it from “We archive your mind” to “Committed to the goal of archiving your mind,” which seemed less like an overpromise.

McIntyre sees his company in the tradition of “hard science” startups working on tough problems like quantum computing. “Those companies also can’t sell anything now, but there is a lot of interest in technologies that could be revolutionary if they are made to work,” he says. “I do think that brain preservation has amazing commercial potential.”

He also keeps in mind the dictum that entrepreneurs should develop products they want to use themselves. He sees good reasons to save a copy of himself somewhere, and copies of other people, too.

“There is a lot of philosophical debate, but to me a simulation is close enough that it’s worth something,” McIntyre told me. “And there is a much larger humanitarian aspect to the whole thing. Right now, when a generation of people die, we lose all their collective wisdom. You can transmit knowledge to the next generation, but it’s harder to transmit wisdom, which is learned. Your children have to learn from the same mistakes.”

“That was fine for a while, but we get more powerful every generation. The sheer immense potential of what we can do increases, but the wisdom does not.”

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610456/a-startup-is-pitching-a-mind-uploading-service-that-is-100-percent-fatal/