Freeze My Dying Brain -- Cure Me in the Future
claimed Kim Suozzi at age 23, but she chose to have her brain preserved with the dream that
neuroscience might one day revive her
By Amy Harmonsept / NY Times
In the moments just before Kim Suozzi died of cancer at age 23, it fell
to her boyfriend, Josh Schisler, to follow through with the plan to
freeze her brain.
As her pulse monitor sounded its alarm and her breath grew ragged, he
fumbled for his phone. Fighting the emotion that threatened to paralyze
him, he alerted the cryonics team waiting nearby and called the hospice
nurses to come pronounce her dead. Any delay would jeopardize the
chance to maybe, someday, resurrect her mind.
It was impossible to know on that cloudless Arizona morning in January
2013 which fragments of Kim’s identity might survive, if any. Would she
remember their first, fumbling kiss in his dorm room five years
earlier? Their private jokes and dumb arguments? The seizure, the
surgery, the fancy neuroscience fellowship she had to turn down?
More than memories, Josh, then 24, wished for the crude procedure to
salvage whatever synapses gave rise to her dry, generous humor,
compelled her to greet every cat she saw with a high-pitched
“helllooo,” and inspired her to write him poems.
They knew how strange it sounded, the hope that Kim’s brain could be
preserved in subzero storage so that decades or centuries from now, if
science advanced, her billions of interconnected neurons could be
scanned, analyzed and converted into computer code that mimicked how
they once worked.
But Kim’s terminal prognosis came at the start of a global push to
understand the brain. And some of the tools and techniques emerging
from neuroscience laboratories were beginning to bear some resemblance
to those long envisioned in futurist fantasies.
For one thing, neuroscientists were starting to map the connections
between individual neurons believed to encode many aspects of memory
The research, limited so far to small bits of dead animal brain, had
the usual goals of advancing knowledge and improving human health.
Still, it was driving interest in what would be a critical first step
to create any simulation of an individual mind: preserving that pattern
of connections in an entire brain after death.
“I can see within, say, 40 years that we would have a method to
generate a digital replica of a person’s mind,” said Winfried Denk, a
director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Germany, who
has invented one of several mapping techniques. “It’s not my primary
motivation, but it is a logical outgrowth of our work.”
Other neuroscientists do not take that idea seriously, given the great
gaps in knowledge about the workings of the brain. “We are nowhere
close to brain emulation given our current level of understanding,”
said Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New
York and one of the architects of the Obama administration’s initiative
seeking a $4.5 billion investment in brain research over the next
“Will it ever be possible?” she asked. “I don’t know. But this isn’t 50
There would not, Kim and Josh well understood, be any quick reunion.
But so long as there was a chance, even a small or distant one, they
thought it was worth trying to preserve her brain.
Might her actual brain be repaired so she could “wake up” one day, the
dominant dream of cryonics for the last half-century? She did not rule
it out. But they also imagined a different outcome, that she might
rejoin the world in an artificial body or a computer-simulated
environment, or perhaps both, feeling and sensing through a silicon
chip rather than a brain.
“I just think it’s worth trying to preserve Kim,” Josh said.
For a brief period three years ago, the young couple became a minor
social media sensation as they went to the online forum Reddit to
solicit donations to pay for her cryonic storage and Kim posted video
blogs about her condition.
And she agreed to let a Times reporter speak to her family and friends
and chart her remaining months and her bid for another chance at life,
with one restriction: “I don’t want you to think I have any idea what
the future will be like,” she wrote in a text message. “So I mean,
don’t portray it like I know.”
In a culture that places a premium on the graceful acceptance of death,
the couple faced a wave of hostility, tempered by sympathy for Kim’s
desire, as she explained it, “not to miss it all.”
Family members and strangers alike told them they were wasting Kim’s
precious remaining time on a pipe dream. Kim herself would allow only
that “if it does happen to work, it would be incredible.” “Dying,” her
father admonished gently, “is a part of life.”
Yet as the brain preservation research that was just starting as Kim’s
life was ending begins to bear fruit, the questions the couple faced
may ultimately confront more of us with implications that could be
The mapping technique pioneered by Dr. Denk and others involves
scanning brains in impossibly thin sheets with an electron microscope.
Stacked together on a computer, the scans reveal a three-dimensional
map of the connections between each neuron in the tissue, the critical
brain anatomy known as the connectome.
Still arduous and expensive, the feat had so far only been performed on
tiny bits of brain from euthanized laboratory animals, and it would be
only one of many steps required to get to a simulation.
Moreover, the brain preservation methods scientists have used to
perform such scanning, which involves encasing pieces of brain in hard
plastic, had failed for anything larger than the size of a sesame seed.
Nor could current methods for cooling and preserving brains at
cryogenic temperatures, the only other known means to forestall decay,
ensure that their fragile wiring was not damaged.
It was to clear that first hurdle, the reliable preservation of a
connectome, that the brain researcher Kenneth Hayworth had formed the
Brain Preservation Foundation shortly before Kim’s diagnosis, with the
ultimate goal of taking brain preservation into the realm of mainstream
With an advisory board that included prominent neuroscientists and
$100,000 from an anonymous donor, the group was offering a prize for
the first individual or team to successfully preserve the connectome of
a mouse or rabbit in a way that would meet the standards of a
peer-reviewed science journal.
But Kim and Josh had no time to wait. Even a poorly preserved brain,
they reasoned, might be able to undergo a kind of digital repair and
“I’ll show you the ropes,” he told her in half-mocking reference to the
possibility of her return to a far-future world.
The morning she died, that meant calling again for the hospice nurse as
she took her last breath.
Read the full story at NY Times...
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