Brain back-up start-up 'will be the death of users'

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThere is no proof that memories can be retrieved from a dead brain

A start-up that claims it will one day allow people to back-up their brains admits it will come at the ultimate price: death.

Nectome has said it will one day be capable of scanning the human brain and preserving it, perhaps running a deceased person's mind as a computer simulation.

However, its current process requires a fresh brain.

The product is "100% fatal", the team behind it told MIT Technology Review.

The company is backed by Y Combinator, an organisation that picks a group of new companies each year to fund and mentor in the hope they receive major funding further down the line.

According to the company's website, Nectome claims it will one day be possible to survey the brain's connectome - the neural connections within the brain - to such a detailed degree that it will be able to reconstruct a person's memories even after they have died.

"Imagine a world where you can successfully map and pinpoint a specific memory within your brain," the site reads.

"Today’s leading neuroscience research suggests that it is possible by preserving your connectome."

Grant money

Nectome will be part of Y Combinator's demo days next week - an event where start-ups pitch their new companies to an audience of investors and journalists.

Previous Y Combinator firms include Dropbox and AirBnB.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionBy mapping the brain's neural connections, the firm hopes to preserve dead people's memories

The firm is also backed by a $960,000 (£687,000) grant from the US National Institute of Mental Health, which said it saw a "commercial opportunity" in brain preservation.

According to MIT Technology Review, the team has consulted lawyers familiar with California's relatively new laws on dignified end-of-life measures.

The company plans to focus on working with terminally ill people in the testing phase.

The company uses an embalming process to preserve minute details of the brain in microscopic detail.

Its work won a prize for furthering the field of brain preservation when it tried the method on a rabbit.

Taking that further, the team said it had already attempted its technique on a just-deceased woman in Portland, Oregon.

However, even a delay of just a couple of hours meant the brain was already badly damaged, it said.

The next stage is to find someone planning to die via doctor-assisted suicide.

Lost generation

There is to date no proof that memories can be retrieved from dead brain tissue, though the team is looking at methods to perhaps begin the process while a person is in their final moments.

Other experts believe the stated goal of preserving memories is an over-promise from Nectome, and part of a growing trend of Silicon Valley figures becoming obsessed with their own mortality.

Cryonics, the sci-fi vision of being able to "freeze" a body in some way and eventually bring it back to life, has, of course, never been realised.

Equally, there is deep scepticism about the feasibility of what Nectome seeks to do.

Regardless, the firm has launched a waiting list as a way of gaining funding. People can join for $10,000, refundable at any time.

According to MIT Technology Review, 25 people have already done so.

One crucial distinction between Nectome's work and more typical cryonics is that the company is not seeking to bring a brain back to life, but instead to store the memories as comprehensively as possible.

"Right now, when a generation of people die, we lose all their collective wisdom," said Nectome co-founder Robert McIntyre.

"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."

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