We live in an age of wonders. For all of its faults — most being driven by the wealthy and powerful who are funding scientific research — science has made some truly astounding discoveries over the past half century. Imagine — we decoded the human genome, the very essence of what makes us human! After that, what other area could be half as exciting?
As it turns out, the brain could. The brain has become the next frontier for serious scientific research. While Big Pharma and Big Medicine are investigating Alzheimer’s disease with an eye to which chemical compounds will put the most money in the most pockets, hard science has been looking at other aspects of the brain. And some pretty astounding things have been happening.
Researchers from a company called 21st Century Medicine recently announced that they had successfully frozen and thawed an intact brain. While many new outlets erroneously reported that scientists had “frozen and revived” a brain, that’s not exactly what happened.
No, this doesn’t mean you can be frozen and brought back to life
Scientists have been freezing and thawing biological specimens for a long, long time. We can even successfully freeze and thaw some living things. Human eggs, sperm cells, and embryos are frozen and thawed daily in reproductive medicine. However, these consist of only a few cells. When we attempt to cryogenically — that is, through freezing — preserve things that are more complex, the technology falls apart. Cell walls burst. Tissue becomes dehydrated. Any number of things can happen, and none of them are good. This is what makes the story of the frozen brain so different.
The brain in question was a rabbit brain. Researchers replaced the blood in the brain with a cocktail of toxic chemicals intended to stop metabolic decay and fix proteins in place. These chemicals also prevented the brain from dehydrating and shrinking. They then froze the brain at a temperature of -210 degrees Fahrenheit and stored it. Later, they rewarmed the frozen brain and the chemicals were removed. They then examined it under an electron microscope — and what they found was unprecedented.
According to scientists, “Every neuron and synapse looks beautifully preserved across the entire brain.” This means that not only were the cells of the brain intact, but also the connections between them. It’s the first time that science has demonstrated a way to preserve everything we believe is involved in learning and memory.
This has huge implications for brain research.
While some dream of finding the root cause of Alzheimer’s and others imagine one day uploading our memories to the internet, the end goal of this project is something much different. What scientists did for genetics with the Human Genome Project, they now want to do for brain research.
They want to map the human brain. Every neuron and connection. Every pathway. Every synapse. And in doing so they hope they will lay the groundwork for every fantasy brain researchers currently have. This includes everything from curing Alzheimer’s to understanding how memories form. By mapping the brain — all 86 billion neurons — they hope they can unlock the very secrets of consciousness.
This is only the first step
This mapping of the brain is a new field of study called connectomics. It uses electron microscope images to examine and map the structure of the brain and the connections between neurons. Its goals are to map all of the billions of circuits in the brain. To look at the electrical patterns at play. To measure the chemical signaling going on. Researchers in this field believe that putting all of this information together will allow them to understand just how the brain works. And understanding how it works will allow science to finally figure out what to do when things go wrong in the brain.
The field has potential not just for medicine but for other fields. The possibilities are exciting — and a bit frightening. I have to ask: If we truly understand the electric and chemical workings of the brain, might we one day create artificial brains? How about “virtual brains” that only exist as computer simulations? Will we truly be able to upload our memories and personalities to the internet or other virtual spaces one day? Will we be able to program and erase memories? Change personality traits with the flick of a chemical switch?
Simple technology like the “mind-reading machine" created in Japan hints that such things may one day be possible. The question is, once we have the knowledge, will we use it for good or simply for profit?
Food for thought.