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Mindful : October 2018
Earlier this year, when the Brain Preservation Foundation—headed by neuroscientist Ken- neth Hay worth of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—awarded a prize to researchers for preserving all the neural circuits of a pig’s brain, Hayworth found himself in the media spotlight. The only problem was, the popular media sim- plified things a bit too far. They took the brain preservation technology to be all about euthana- sia. Since the method used to preserve the pig’s brain only works with a recently deceased brain, if the technology became available to humans, anyone wishing to preserve their own brains this way would need to die, ideally when the brain is in good shape. So, reporters reached the conclu- sion that the technology was about taking the opportunity to die knowing your brain would be preserved. As we shall see, that wasn’t the point. The sensational euthanasia angle crowded out the scientific story about the remarkable advances being made in connectomics—the science of figuring out a brain’s complete wiring diagram—and the once-absurd dream that it might one day be possible to upload a mind into the cloud, Ray Kurzweil-style, achieving cyber-immortality. Although “it will be at least 50 years before the first human mind is success- fully uploaded and 100 years before it’s routine,” Hayworth said, he regards it as not only scientif- ically possible but ethically imperative. But first, the science. Just as genomics studies genomes, so con- nectomics studies connections in the brain. The ultimate goal of this 21st-century biological car- tography is to map the location of every neuron and every connection: the synapses that, neuro- biologists believe, encode what we call “mind,” from every memory to every facet of personality, beliefs, and consciousness. Determining the connectome—or, a con- nectome, since each brain’s is unique—is the prerequisite for uploading and “emulating” → Upload Your Brain Talk of uploading our brainware—to reanimate our consciousness for future use—was once considered worthy only of fantasy and sci-fi. But now technology has made it just conceivable enough to raise serious questions. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Sharon Begley is senior science writer with S TAT, a national health and medicine publication. She is also author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain and, most recently, Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions (2 017, Simon & Schuster). By Sharon Begley • Illustrations by Edmon de Haro 34 mindful October 2018 brain science