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Freeze My Dying Brain -- Cure Me in the Future


Cancer claimed Kim Suozzi at age 23, but she chose to have her brain preserved with the dream that neuroscience might one day revive her mind.

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 and identity.

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 decade.

“Will it ever be possible?” she asked. “I don’t know. But this isn’t 50 years away.”

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 preposterously profound.

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 medicine.

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 rehabilitation.

“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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