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    Brain freeze: scientist’s idea to preserve human brains too much for MIT

    The MIT Media Lab.
    Fumihiko Maki and Associates in association with Leers Weinzapfel Associates
    The MIT Media Lab.

    People said it was crazy to freeze Ted Williams’s head in hopes science one day would advance enough to bring him back to life. Well, meet Robert McIntyre.

    The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher believes he can preserve a brain well enough that someday its memories could be recovered. Maybe even uploaded to a computer.

    His California startup, Nectome, was building on novel cryonic science, even collaborating with his alma mater on some research. But McIntyre’s approach has a twist: If you want to freeze your brain, you’d have to come in alive — and leave dead.

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    The premise was enough to unnerve even the MIT Media Lab, which cut ties with Nectome on Monday. Several weeks earlier, McIntyre’s research had gone viral after a magazine article noted he had received $10,000 deposits from several dozen people eager to reserve a plot in the digital afterlife.

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    Not known to fear the furthest frontiers of science, the MIT lab said it was concerned about the “scientific premises” underlying Nectome’s commercial ambitions for preserving human brains. “To understand this will require new science that represents a nonlinear jump from the neuroscience occurring today and some people regard this as an unsolvable problem,” the Media Lab said in its statement.

    The Media Lab said it had been collaborating with McIntyre on a project to “better visualize mouse brain circuits for basic science and research purposes,” but declined to comment further. McIntyre won’t discuss the MIT situation, but stressed that none of his current work involves live humans.

    NECTOME
    Robert McIntyre.

    Despite seeing his big idea rendered as a morbid obsession on the Internet, McIntyre remains steadfast in his belief that computers can one day replicate the physical workings of the brain. (This would be a huge leap from what we consider artificial intelligence, where software is used to make decisions.)

    “The brain is an immensely complicated physical object, and so by virtue of it being physical, you can simulate it,” he said. “You can capture the processes that it’s doing computationally, and so you should be able to reproduce the computations that the brain is doing in other mediums the same way you can emulate one computer on another computer.”

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    McIntyre is a serious scientist, whose work on preserving brains in animals for deeper study has attracted no less a backer than the United States government. The National Institute of Mental Health has provided nearly $1 million in grants to Nectome for research on brain preservation and imaging. And he and a colleague won an $80,000 prize from the Brain Preservation Foundation for their discoveries on preserving synapses in pig brains.

    His goal of working on human brains is a more distant project, in only its earliest stages of research. In an article in MIT Technology Review in March, Nectome disclosed it has received one donated human brain from a deceased person. But it has stopped accepting applications from people it refers to as “early supporters” amid a backlog of inquiries. About 25 people had given the company $10,000 deposits, but Nectome said the payments are refundable.

    Eventually, Nectome may be able to essentially embalm people with terminal illnesses while they are sedated, but still alive, then freeze their bodies with brains inside. The process would result in their deaths, but Nectome believes it would be permissible in California, which has a doctor-assisted suicide law.

    Gary Schwitzer, publisher of the science media watchdog HealthNewsReview.org, said McIntyre’s situation underscores how scientists have to be careful describing research that might be years ahead of what society deems acceptable.

    “Describe the passion and the fire that burns in you,” said Schwitzer. “Just don’t brush up against suggesting that evidence exists when it doesn’t. And avoid hype at all expense, because it’s going to come back to burn you, and it should.”

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    McIntyre remains passionate about his company’s science, believing it could become a major advance in human preservation over what was used when Ted Williams’s head and body were frozen upon his death in 2002 .

    But he acknowledged the larger scientific world has to be ready to allow that research to proceed.

    “Our position is that brain preservation has the potential for immense benefits to society, but only if it is developed with the participation of the neuroscience and medical ethics communities,” McIntyre said.

    Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.