MIT Cuts Ties With Controversial Brain-Uploading Startup

A startup that claimed it could store people's memories after death to later digitally upload them has received much criticism from neuroscientists declaring the technology impossible. As a result, MIT has now pulled its support of the once promising project.

MIT Media Lab has ended its relationship with Nectome, a startup aiming to revive human brains after death through possible future digital upload. The move comes after the institute’s connection to the company was put in question when MIT Technology Review published an article explaining Nectome’s “100 percent fatal” technology. 

An idea that is not possible 

MIT has since been criticized by neuroscientists for giving the idea of brain uploading credibility when, they argue, it is simply not possible.

“Fundamentally, the company is based on a proposition that is just false. It is something that just can’t happen.” 

Speaking about Netcome, Sten Linnarsson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden told MIT Technology Review that: “Fundamentally, the company is based on a proposition that is just false. It is something that just can’t happen.” 

Linnarsson also added that he feared lending the company credibility would increase the chances that people may choose to die to donate their brains. “It is so unethical—I can’t describe how unethical it is,” Linnarsson added. 

The concept behind Nectome’s technology is that embalming people’s brains after their death to preserve the connections between neurons could retain a person’s memories. Those memories would then be digitized and uploaded into a computer so that a new version of the person could live again. 

Initially, the concept called Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation (ASC) seemed to be well received as Nectome won the $80,000 Large Mammal Brain Preservation Prize. The start-up was also awarded a National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) small business grant with MIT’s Synthetic Neurobiology Group. 

MIT seeks to distance itself 

However, an MIT Media Lab press release put out on April 3 sought to distance the university from the controversial startup: 

"Upon consideration of the scientific premises underlying the company’s commercial plans, as well as certain public statements that the company has made, MIT has informed Nectome of its intent to terminate the subcontract between MIT and Nectome in accordance with the terms of their agreement. 

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."

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The comments MIT refers to in their release could be claims published on the startup’s website such as this:

"If memories can truly be preserved by a sufficiently good brain banking technique, we believe that within the century it could become feasible to digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind." 

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Responding to the news, Robert McIntyre, co-founder of Netcome, told MIT Technology Review: "we appreciate the help MIT has given us, understand their choice, and wish them the best." 

Despite canceling the contract, MIT Media Lab did not completely reject the idea of brain uploading in its exit statement. The release entertained the concept of recapturing the mind’s memories after death, referring to it as a “very interesting basic science question.”

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