Fatal preservation: the startup on a mission to preserve memories
Startups are at the heart of innovation and breathe new life into the tech ecosystem, but some startups require death for their service to work.
Introducing Nectome, a neuroscience startup that aims to preserve the brain and keep all its memories intact. Founded in 2015 by Robert McIntyre, the research organisation is dedicated to advancing the science of memory. The startup designs and conducts experiments to discover how the brain physically creates memories, as well as developing biological preservation techniques to preserve the physical traces of memory.
The company has, to date, raised $120,000 through pre-seed and seed funding rounds, although hasn’t had a funding round since 2018.
The company is sizing up demand by inviting prospective customers to join a waiting list for a deposit of $10,000, fully refundable if you change your mind. Allegedly 25 people have already signed up to the wait list, including an investor who is one of the creators of the Y Combinator programme, who has invested money into the startup.
For Nectome’s procedure to work, it’s essential that the brain is fresh. The company says its plan is to connect people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine to pump its mix of embalming chemicals into the big carotid arteries in their necks while they are still alive (under general anaesthesia).
The company has consulted with lawyers familiar with California’s End of Life Option Act, which allows doctor-assisted suicide for terminal patients, and believes the service will be entirely legal. The product is “100% fatal,” said McIntyre. “The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide.”
The preservation procedure, which takes around six hours, can be described as a “fancy form of embalming that preserves not just the outer details but the inner details,” continued McIntyre.
There’s no expectation that the preserved tissue can be brought back to life. Instead, the idea is to retrieve information that’s present in the brain’s anatomical layout and molecular details.
Robert McIntyre is an MIT-trained scientist and the CEO of Nectome. He graduated from MIT with a Master of Engineering in Artificial Intelligence.
21st Century Medicine, along with lead researcher McIntyre and senior author Greg Fahy (Fellow of the Society for Cryobiology), won The Brain Preservation Foundation’s (BPF) Large Mammal Brain Preservation Prize. The Prize required the successful preservation of synaptic connectivity across an entire pig brain in a manner compatible with centuries-long storage. To accomplish this, McIntyre’s team scaled up the same procedure they used to previously preserve a rabbit brain, for which they won the BPF’s Small Mammal Prize in February 2016. This procedure, named Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation (ASC), was published in a peer-reviewed journal by McIntyre and Fahy in 2015 and consists of perfusing the brain with glutaraldehyde and cryoprotectant prior to very low temperature storage.
At his brain preservation talk at the Long Now Foundation, McIntyre said that he thinks it will still be about 70 years until we can access the information in preserved brains. At this talk, he claimed that preservation is relatively inexpensive, but the storage costs are very expensive because it has to be stored at a specific cold temperature that’s only currently achievable with explosive gases.
The startup’s website states: “In the long term, a mature science and technology of memory could enable some truly revolutionary advances in the way our society relates to and engages with memory, including how we experience history, how we preserve the languages, cultures, and wisdom of the past, and how health care engages with individuals’ memories and personal narratives.”
It continues: “In conducting our research, we are not operating on an artificial timeline. Instead, we are taking every measure to ensure our research is rigorous and of superior quality. We are committed to upholding this standard, no matter how long it takes. We are not beholden to any business projections, nor do we work with investors who impose their own timelines on our work.
We are partnering with bioethicists and medical professionals to fully understand and explore what our work could mean to the world. We’re currently very early in this process, but we are serious about maintaining a strong moral and ethical framework for our research.”
The research carried out by Nectome has four main prongs:
- Connectome Preservation – “The success of vitrifixation at preserving an entire mammalian connectome gives us reason to believe that memory preservation is possible. Our current connectome preservation research seeks to further characterise the quality of our preservation, extend the technique to other species, and modify the chemistry of vitrifixation for greater long-term stability at a variety of convenient temperatures.”
- Biomolecular Preservation – “We are currently investigating the level of preservation we can achieve for proteins, nucleic acids (DNA/RNA), lipids, carbohydrates, and other critical biomolecules. We work with multiple labs that have expertise performing biochemical assays to ensure reliable and independent results.”
- Memory Extraction – “We feel that long-term memory extraction experiments are very underexplored, but we also think that Nectome can make significant progress in this area.”
- Molecular Dynamics – “The field of molecular dynamics has improved dramatically in recent years, enabling never-before-possible insights into biomolecular interactions at the atomic level. By studying computer simulations of fixatives and cryoprotectants, we can learn about the molecular effects of our preservation technology and use that information to optimize our preservation techniques.”
Back in early 2018, MIT decided to disassociate itself from the startup. In an official statement, MIT Media Lab wrote: “MIT is party to a subcontract under an NIMH small business grant awarded to Nectome, with the Boyden group working on an academic research project to combine aspects of Nectome’s chemistry with the Boyden group’s invention, expansion microscopy, to better visualise mouse brain circuits for basic science and research purposes. Such a novel chemistry could, if achieved, facilitate brain disorder drug discovery, boost basic neuroscience circuit mapping, and facilitate brain banking for future research into health and disease states. […] 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.”
While this may sound completely futuristic, the research is still in the early stages, and might be the next big thing.