Wednesday, April 4, 2018

MIT cuts ties with brain preservation startup Nectome

MIT is disassociating itself from Nectome, the Y Combinator-backed startup promising to preserve customers’ brains for the possibility of future digital upload.

Co-founder Robert McIntyre described the procedure as “100 percent fatal” — it involves connecting terminally ill patients to a machine that pumps embalming fluids into their arteries.

The company has collected (refundable) $10,000 payments for a wait list, but its website now carries a note in “Response to recent press,” suggesting that the company would only carry the procedure out after further research:

We believe that clinical human brain preservation has immense potential to benefit humanity, but only if it is developed in the light, with input from medical and neuroscience experts. We believe that rushing to apply vitrification today would be extremely irresponsible and hurt eventual adoption of a validated protocol.

As noted in the MIT Technology Review, MIT has been criticized for potentially giving the company credibility by association — MIT Media Lab professor Edward Boyden was receiving money through a federal grant won by Nectome. (McIntyre and his co-founder Michael McCanna are both MIT graduates.)

Now the Media Lab has released a statement saying that after reviewing “the scientific premises underlying the company’s commercial plans, as well as certain public statements that the company has made,” it will “terminate the subcontract between MIT and Nectome in accordance with the terms of their agreement.”

The Media Lab says that the grant involved a research project to “combine aspects of Nectome’s chemistry with the Boyden group’s invention, expansion microscopy, to better visualize mouse brain circuits for basic science and research purposes.” Apparently Prof. Boyden has “no personal affiliation — financial, operational, or contractual — with the company Nectome.”

The statement concludes with a discussion of the science behind Nectome. The Media Lab doesn’t completely rule out the possibility of brain preservation and uploading in the future, but it suggests that the science isn’t solid yet:

Neuroscience has not sufficiently advanced to the point where we know whether any brain preservation method is powerful enough to preserve all the different kinds of biomolecules related to memory and the mind. It is also not known whether it is possible to recreate a person’s consciousness.

McIntyre told the MIT Technology Review, “We appreciate the help MIT has given us, understand their choice, and wish them the best.”