It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie; a maverick scientific genius finds a way to save his brain and is able to live forever. Recent advances in technology mean that the idea of “uploading” the parts of a human brain which determine our personality and contain our memories might not be quite as far-fetched as they first sound.
Some of the technology which many scientists believe will one day allow us to upload our brains to computers or transplant them into different bodies and therefore live forever is already in use. Computer scientists talk about brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and some patients are already benefiting from BCIs.
Perhaps the most commonly found BCI is the cochlear implant, where tiny computer processors are implanted deep inside the ear of a person with hearing loss to help them expand the range of sounds they can hear. Work is also underway in the field of rehabilitation for people who have suffered spinal damage, and eventually the hope is that computer chips implanted in the brain or spinal cord will replicate the function of the damaged nerves and help paralysed patients walk normally again.
Even more research is underway at the University of Southern California, where academics are trying to create a device which replaces the human hippocampus, the part of the brain which handles memories. The idea is that users would be able to convert their short term memories into digital signals, then the computer software would store the memories as long term memories, which could be fed back into the brain. Early trials using humans are already underway.
One Russian internet entrepreneur is so convinced that technology will provide the route to immortality that he is ploughing his considerable fortune into researching the possibilities. The ability to “upload” your brain from your ageing, elderly and frail body into a computer and then have it transplanted into a younger, healthy and fit body could indeed allow someone’s personality and memories to live forever. Much of the work at the early stages of the process is concerned with mapping the brain in order to understand exactly how electrical connections are made. Scientists believe that if we can produce a map showing how all the different neurons of the brain communicate with one another, then this would be the first step to either producing an artificial human brain, or in building a computer program which would allow users to upload their personality, memories, likes and dislikes into the computer and then have it downloaded at a later date. There could also be some very practical aspects to this sort of research, as a greater understanding of how the brain works and the ability to spot changes and potentially reverse them could assist in the early diagnosis of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, and even a treatment or cure.
Scientists are in agreement that mapping the human brain is indeed possible, but many cast doubt on the length of time needed to complete the project. It is estimated that it would take up to two years to map the connections in the brain of a fly, and that the length of time needed to map a human brain would be far longer. Many neuroscientists also believe that the human brain just cannot be mapped in the same way as a computer program. They think that emotions such as love, hate or jealousy simply could not be transferred into computer code, and that ethical considerations involved with storing brains and memories could stop a project before it has even begun. There are also some very practical considerations such as where all the young, healthy bodies are to come from to enable brains to be transplanted. These issues are brushed over by the enthusiastic proponents of memory storage, and are unlikely to have to be considered for many years or decades to come.
However, what is certain that even if creating a device to upload human conscience is possible, it’s not going to happen overnight. If research into this possibility yields advances in the treatment and diagnosis of dementia and other related conditions, we can all agree that the consequences are at least in part positive.
In your opinion, should scientists steer clear of such a controversial subject? Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?
If you're interested in learning more about the human brain, check out our full catalog of anatomically accurate models; ideal for both teacher and student!