Silicon Valley startup digitizing brains in '100% fatal' process

For a mere $10,000 price tag — completely refundable if you change your mind while it still belongs to you — a company will digitize your brain.

Nectome, cofounded by MIT graduate Robert McIntyre, plans to work with terminally ill patients who want to have their brains embalmed and, as is pitched on the company's site, "back up your mind" to a digital platform. The patients, understanding that they are entering into a situation that will end their lives, are connected to a heart-lung machine that pumps embalming chemicals into the arteries of the neck while they're still alive but under general anesthesia.

The process can keep the body intact for hundreds of years, Nectome claims, with the hope that one day the brain will be turned into a computer simulation of someone a lot like the deceased, and in a way, achieving immortality.

"I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud," Sam Altman, whose Y Combinator is the startup accelerator behind Nectome, and who is signed up for the procedure, told MIT Technology Review.

Nectome will pitch the brain-preserving service next week to investors at Demo Day — the twice-a-year stage for Y Combinator startups to present their product to a group of specifically invited people, although it has already received a $960,000 federal grant.

"(It's) 100% fatal," McIntyre said. "(Which) is why we are uniquely situated among the Y Combinator companies…The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide."

But there is plenty of doubt and speculation surrounding what McIntyre and Nectome claim they will one day be able to do — revive old memories storied in the preserved brains of the deceased. In 2015, McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks wrote for MIT Technology Review that it is "an abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology and is certainly impossible."

And yet Nectome has a list of 25 willing participants waiting for their chance to take part in the company's version of complying with California's End of Life Option Act, which legalized physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients two years ago.

Nectome isn't the only player in the brain preservation game. A cryonic lab in Arizona, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation where baseball legend Ted Williams is held, exists but its process of cryogenically freezing people is believed by some to cause irreversible damage to the brain. McIntyre sees Nectome's process as sustainable because of its combination of cryogenics and embalming, a method that has been able to properly preserve the connectome - a web of synapses in the brain that connect neurons and is key to recreating consciousness. But the goal isn't to restore life, it's to retrieve the information stored in the brain.

"If the brain is dead, it's like your computer is off but that doesn't mean the information isn't there," president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, Ken Hayworth, told Technology Review. "It may be possible in 100 years. Speaking personally, if I were a facing a terminal illness I would likely choose euthanasia by (this method)."

Hendricks, after reviewing Nectome's website and its pitch to preserve and eventually reanimate the brain still has his profound doubts.

"Burdening future generations with our brain banks is just comically arrogant," he told TR. "Aren't we leaving them with enough problems? 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."

McIntyre and Nectome's two-minute pitch at Y Combinator's Demo Day will take place at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. next week.