PlanetTech News interviews neuroscientist Dr. Kenneth Hayworth
Dr. Kenneth Hayworth is president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, an organization formed to skeptically evaluate cryonic and other potential preservation technology by examining how well they preserve the brain’s neural circuitry at the nanometer scale.
Hayworth is also a Senior Scientist at the HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus where he is currently researching ways to extend Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscopy (FIBSEM) of brain tissue to encompass much larger volumes than are currently possible.
In this exclusive Interview, PlanetTechNews digs deeper into the future of brain preservation, cryonics and mind uploading, as well as the future of neuroscience, AI, and understanding the brain.
Kenneth Hayworth: I would like to stress up front that I try to keep my advocacy work as president of the Brain Preservation Foundation separated from my ‘day job’ as a neuroscientist (although, of course, they are intimately related). Not all of my neuroscience colleagues are as willing to extrapolate current neuroscience knowledge to its potential far-future implications, much less willing to publicly advocate for changes in end-of-life options in hospitals based upon these extrapolations. The views expressed here should be considered mine alone.
Briefly, how did you get involved in neuroscience?
I became intensely interested in neuroscience when I was in high school. I was previously obsessed with all things space and had tentatively decided to devote my life to designing new rocket engines that could get us to other stars. While I was reading up on the physics involved in conventional chemical rocketry as well as more advanced propulsion designs (fusion rockets, Bussard ramjets, antimatter pion rockets, laser-pushed lightsails, etc.) I became very discouraged when I realized that even under the most optimistic scenarios such designs would not be capable of getting humans to other stars in my lifetime.
At this same time I came across a popular science book on neural network models of brain function. Reading it made me realize that the true way humans will reach the stars is through advanced neuroscience and mind uploading. Deeper reading made clear that the last 100 years of neuro and cognitive sciences had proven that the essence of what we are is information. Every conscious experience, thought, and feeling we have arises from computations performed by particular patterns of electrical activity in our brain. Everything that makes us unique individuals (our memories, our personality traits, our hard-learned skills) has been written into the wiring of our brain’s neural networks through Hebbian plasticity of the synaptic connections. (Of course this is just textbook neuroscience but it was new to me in high school.)
It was then that I realized what tremendous potential neuroscience offered to humanity. If we could truly understand the workings of the brain at the mechanistic level we would not only understand ourselves at a deeper level but would be able to use that understanding to overcome all of our biological limitations. Uploading our minds into computers controlling robotic bodies would eliminate disease and aging and would fantastically expand our intellectual capacity. At the same time, it would make traveling at the speed of light to other star systems possible since transferring an uploaded mind from a robotic body on earth to one waiting on another planet would be as easy as wirelessly transferring a program from one computer to another.
This is why I studied neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence in college and graduate school and why, as an adult, I joined the ranks of the thousands of scientists around the world working hard to understand the brain/mind at a completely mechanistic level. We all realize how difficult the task is but have devoted our lives to it because we can scarcely imagine a more exciting field to be in.
What do you currently work on?
I am currently a senior scientist at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus. I work as part of a large team at Janelia devoted to completely understanding the brain of the fruit fly (Drosophila). Why a fruit fly? Because decades of research have been spent developing very powerful genetic techniques which can target every single neuron type in the fly brain individually. This means that we can record and manipulate the firing of any individual cell in the fruit fly brain during behaviors (such as odor learning, or during tethered ‘flight’ in a virtual arena).
Also, since the fly brain is so small we can potentially map out its complete circuitry (every neuron and every synaptic connection). This is what I work on. I am in a team developing a technique called Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscopy (FIB-SEM) which images chemically-preserved, plastic-embedded brain tissue at resolutions better than 8x8x8nm (nanometer). With this technique we have already mapped out the circuits of the fly optic lobe and are hard at work scaling the technology to allow us to image an entire fly brain at this resolution. It is an ambitious project (essentially the goal is to, for the first time, completely understand the functioning of a whole nervous system). I am very lucky to play a small role in this project.
Aside from this fly project I have been developing techniques which will allow FIB-SEM mapping of neural circuits to be applied to arbitrarily large volumes of brain tissue (a cortical column of mouse cortex for example). To do this I have developed a technique which can losslessly subdivide a large block of brain tissue into smaller chunks optimally sized and mounted for FIB-SEM imaging. In this way many FIB-SEM machines can be used to image the same brain in parallel.
What is your take on the Human Brain Project (HBP) and what would you highlight as major differences from US BRAIN Initiative?
Both of these are large projects with many participating labs. I feel that research in these labs should be evaluated individually. I know the European HBP has been receiving criticism from a number of neuroscientists for its premature focus on large-scale simulations. For the most part I agree with those arguments but have little to add to the debate that has not already been said. I am happy to see that there is sufficient public interest to support large-scale neuroscience projects in general. Much of the fantastic success of physics and astronomy has been due to such large-scale pooling of resources and I think neuroscience is mature enough now to also gain from such pooling of resources.
Do you believe HBP (or anyone else) have what it takes to do a full computer simulation of a human brain a decade from now, or anything close to that?
No. Neuroscience is progressing remarkably fast but the task of understanding and simulating a brain is overwhelming complex. I have no doubt that we will eventually succeed (as the human race) in the task of understanding our brain/mind at the mechanistic level. But this is a long-term endeavor. I would be very surprised to see a successful computer simulation of a human brain within my lifetime. (But I can hope.)
What have been the most interesting developments in the field of neuroscience in the last 5 years? How you see the role of microscopy methods in these developments?
There are so many. From a techniques point of view I would point to automated 3D electron microscopy (starting with Winfried Denk’s development of the serial block face SEM in 2004 but really taking off only in the last 5 years). Optical imaging of neuronal firing and optogenetic manipulation of firing are amazing tools to help understand the functioning of the nervous system. These are exploding in use now and are sure to offer new insights.
Where do you anticipate the most progress, where will neuroscience be in the next 5 and 10 years?
The real story is that the new techniques are allowing us to rigorously test old theories of how the brain works. And many of these older (textbook) theories are proving mostly correct. The Allen Brain Institute’s new focus on the mammalian visual system is a great example. I anticipate that they will ‘discover’ that much of what theoretical neuroscientists have been saying about the operation of the mammalian visual system is in fact true.
What few non-scientists realize is that we, as a field, have some very well-thought-out models of overall brain operation at the neural network level and at the cognitive level. A shining example of a top-level cognitive theory of the brain is ACT-R (http://act-r.psy.cmu.edu/
), and a good reference on neural network models spanning visual object recognition, declarative memory formation and retrieval, reinforcement learning, etc. is the book ‘Neural Networks and Brain Function’ by Rolls and Treves. I would hope that over the next 5 to 10 years neuroscience will increasingly focus its efforts on rigorously testing specific models of brain function like these.
What motivated you to start the Brain Preservation Foundation?
Well, simply put, I am a ‘true believer’ in neuroscience. I believe the textbooks when they say that the mind is solely a product of brain function, and when they say that our unique memories are encoded in the physical synaptic connections between neurons. I looked at the rapid advances in electron imaging technology (connectomics) and could not help but project that within this century we will be able to map out entire human brains at this ultimate synaptic resolution. I looked at the rapid advances in computer technology and could not help but project that mind uploading was on the horizon, if not for me or my children then at least for my children’s children.
I was also realistic enough to understand that progress in science and technology takes time and that, in all likelihood, I and my loved ones and friends would miss out on this future where aging and disease is finally conquered. I, like so many others in the ‘cryonics’ community, then realized that some form of suspended animation could offer a potential ‘bridge’ to that future. However, unlike many cryonics advocates, I realized that the only thing which must be preserved to ensure survival of a person’s unique identity is the structure of the brain’s synaptic connections. And that this goal is much easier to achieve than preservation of biological viability (via cryonics). (Of course I am not the first to realize this. Many in the cryonics community have as well.)
I was (and still am) amazed that essentially no targeted research was being performed with the explicit goal of perfecting brain preservation at the ultrastructural level and adapting it into an (elective) emergency medical procedure. Since no one else was stepping up to be an advocate for such research I decided to form the Brain Preservation Foundation whose mission is to advocate for such research.
The Brain Preservation Foundation is simply attempting to get more scientists to consider the medical implications that a perfected technique of structural brain preservation would have, its real potential to save lives and to fundamentally alter our views on end-of-life medical care. The Brain Preservation Foundation’s core mission is to get more scientists and medical researchers to work toward perfecting a means of preserving human brains at the ultrastructure level for long-term storage.
What has been the most interesting recent progress in brain preservation?
Beyond a doubt the most exciting recent advance in brain preservation has been the work of Dr. Shawn Mikula (in the laboratory of Winfried Denk) at the Max-Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg Germany. Over the last five years Dr. Mikula has been perfecting a method of preserving an entire mouse brain in plastic suitable for 3D electron microscopy. An early publication of his technique was published in Nature Methods:
I believe that the technical advances Mikula has developed to preserve a mouse brain will be extremely relevant to the development of a technique suitable for preserving human brains (in hospital settings) with the same fidelity.
Mikula’s chemical preservation method is by no means the only brain preservation method being researched. We are also tracking (and supporting) research into cryonic preservation of brains and hybrid approaches which aim to combine the best of the chemical and cryonic methods.
Tell us about the prize you established in this field, how did it get started? What needs to be achieved to win? Who are the major players and what progress is being made?
The Brain Preservation Foundation is offering a challenge prize (modeled after the Ansari X-Prize) to any group which develops a technique that can preserve a large mammalian brain at the ultrastructure level (preserving traceability of neuronal processes and synaptic connections) for long-term storage (>100 years).
The prize has two phases: A ‘small mammal’ phase in which any team that can show preservation of a mouse brain will receive ¼ of the total prize purse, and a ‘large mammal phase’ in which a team must demonstrate their technique on a pig brain for the remaining prize purse. Preservation must be rigorously demonstrated (for example by comprehensive surveying of the brain using electron microscopy) and the full protocol must be disclosed in a peer-reviewed journal article to the full scientific community.
Both teams are making significant progress but have yet to demonstrate preservation sufficient to win the prize. We are expecting more mouse brain samples from Dr. Mikula later this year for evaluation to meet the ‘small mammal’ phase of our prize.
Where do you see the Brain Preservation Foundation in 10 years?
Hopefully there will not need to be a Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) in 10 years. The BPF was founded to advocate for research into creating a technique which can preserve a human brain at the ultrastructural level for long-term storage. That goal is readily achievable with today’s technology if modest resources are devoted to it. If the scientific and medical community decided to make brain preservation a priority I suspect that it could be absolutely perfected in as short a time as two years.
We could be looking at such a surgical protocol being available in all major hospitals in a five year time frame (again if it was a priority). If the BPF is successful in its advocacy campaign, then in 10 years emergency brain preservation procedures offered in hospitals to terminal patients will be common place. There will be no need for the BPF.
What are your thoughts on using cryonics to preserve organs for transplant, or to prevent them being destroyed for other reasons? There has been this famous study of a rabbit kidney that was cryopreserved, revived and then successfully transplanted. Does this prove the potential for cryonics when applied to humans? What is really going on here?
The work of 21st Century Medicine on virtification of whole organs for eventual organ banking and transplant is fantastic. I would also point out their demonstration of preservation of function of a 0.5mm hippocampal slice. (http://www.21cmpublications.com/viewpublication.aspx?id=90
) and (http://www.21cmpublications.com/viewpublication.aspx?id=23
). We are more than pleased to have them competing for our brain preservation prize. However, it must be realized that there are still serious obstacles to overcome for preserving whole organs both from a viability/transplant perspective and from a connectome perspective.
Have you considered Partnering up with the X-Prize foundation? It would seem like you are thinking among common lines.
I initially discussed with Peter Diamandis the idea for a brain preservation prize but those talks did not proceed further. I see that they and others are considering prizes with somewhat similar goals (e.g. Organ Preservation Alliance). I enthusiastically support such efforts. I would point out that our Brain Preservation Prize has a much more achievable target goal: simply preserving the structure of the brain’s connectivity as opposed to preserving biological viability. I would also point out that our prize has the potential for much greater ramifications: offering an alternative to the finality of death and a bridge to the future by providing a scientifically proven way of preserving one’s unique memories for eventual future uploading.
Since you asked, I would have to say I would love to partner (or transfer) the prize to a terrific organization like the X-Prize foundation. If this was a $10million prize instead of a $100,000 prize, and if it was supported by a world-class public relations team (as opposed to our small team of volunteers) then I suspect the Brain Preservation Prize would have already been won and the world would already be on its way to implementing the protocol in hospitals.