14. November 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Health, Neuroscience

Any terminal illness is a terrible thing; but to a cryonics member, a brain-destroying neurodegenerative disease is the worst contemporary medical “death sentence” one can receive. There are several flavors of neurodegenerative disorders, many of which primarily affect the patient’s movement, strength, coordination, or the peripheral nervous system. And there are numerous contributory mechanisms in the causation of neurodegeneration, including prion infection and toxin related disease. But the most common – and the most feared – neurodegenerative disease is one that affects not movement, but cognition.

Of course, I am speaking of Alzheimer disease (AD). Originally described in a 51- year old woman by the Bavarian psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer in 1906, neuropathologists have increasingly recognized that AD is also the most common basis for latelife cognitive failure. Culminating in neuronal dystrophy and death leading to the progressive loss of memory and other cognitive functions (i.e., dementia), and affecting individuals of both sexes and of all races and ethnic groups at a rate of occurrence in the U.S. ranging from approximately 1.3% (age 65-74) to 45% (age 85-93), it is easy to see why AD has generated so much intense scientific interest in recent years.

In the recently published work “The Biology of Alzheimer Disease” (2012), most of what is known about AD today is described in detail in the various chapters covering topics such as the neuropsychological profile and neuropathological alterations in AD, biomarkers of AD, the biochemistry and cell biology of the various proteins involved in AD, animal models of AD, the role of inflammation in AD, the genetics of AD, and treatment strategies. The editors’ selection of contributions has resulted in the most up-to-date compendium on Alzheimer disease to date.

The book culminates in a chapter called Alzheimer Disease in 2020, where the editors extol “the remarkable advances in unraveling the biological underpinnings of Alzheimer disease…during the last 25 years,” and yet also recognize that “we have made only the smallest of dents in the development of truly disease-modifying treatments.” So what can we reasonably expect over the course of the next 7 years or so? Will we bang our heads against the wall of discovery, or will there be enormous breakthroughs in identification and treatment of AD?

Though a definitive diagnosis of AD is only possible upon postmortem histopathological examination of the brain, a thorough review of the book leads me to believe that the greatest progress currently being made is in developing assays to diagnose AD at earlier stages. It is now known that neuropathological changes associated with AD may begin decades before symptoms manifest. This, coupled with the uncertainty inherent in a clinical diagnosis of AD, has driven a search for diagnostic markers. Two particular approaches have shown the most promise: brain imaging and the identification of fluid biomarkers of AD.

Historically, imaging was used only to exclude potentially surgically treatable causes of cognitive decline. Over the last few decades, imaging has moved from this minor role to a central position of diagnostic value with ever-increasing specificity. The ability to differentiate AD from alternative or contributory pathologies is of significant value now, but the need for an earlier and more certain diagnosis will only increase as disease-modifying therapies are identified. This will be particularly true if these therapies work best (or only) when initiated at the preclinical stage. Improvements in imaging have also greatly increased our understanding of the biology and progression of AD temporally and spatially. Importantly, the clinical correlations of these changes and their relationships to other biomarkers and to prognosis can be studied.

The primary modalities that have contributed to progress in AD imaging are structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional MRI, fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) positron emission tomography (PET), and amyloid PET. Structural MRI, which is used to image the structure of the brain, has obvious utility in visualizing the progressive cerebral atrophy characteristic of AD. Such images can be used as a marker of disease progression and as a means of measuring effective treatments (which would slow the rate of atrophy). Functional MRI, on the other hand, measures changes in blood oxygen leveldependent (BOLD) MR signal. This signal, which can be acquired during cognitive tasks, may provide the clinician with a tool to compare brain activity across conditions in order to assess and detect early brain dysfunction related to AD and to monitor therapeutic response over relatively short time periods.

FDG PET primarily indicates brain metabolism and synaptic activity by measuring glucose analog fluorodeoxyglucose (which can be detected by PET after labeling it with Fluorine-18). A large body of FDG-PET work has identified an endophenotype of AD – that is, a signature set of regions that are typically hypometabolic in AD patients. FDG hypometabolism parallels cognitive function along the trajectory of normal, preclinical, prodromal, and established AD. Over the course of three decades of investigation, FDG PET has emerged as a robust marker of brain dysfunction in AD. Imaging of β-amyloid (Aβ) – the peptide that makes up the plaques found in the brains of AD patients – is accomplished via amyloid PET to determine brain Aβ content. Historically, this has only been possible upon postmortem examination, so the utility of amyloid imaging is in moving this assessment from the pathology laboratory to the clinic. Because amyloid deposition begins early on, however, amyloid PET is not useful as a marker of disease progression.

The well-known hallmarks of AD, the plaques and neurofibrillary tangles first described by Alouis Alzheimer in 1906, were discovered in 1985 to be composed primarily of β-amyloid and hyperphosphorylated tau protein, respectively. Advances in our knowledge of Aβ generation and tau protein homeostasis have led to substantial research into disease-modifying drugs aimed at decreasing overall plaque and tangle load in an effort to halt neurodegeneration. Such treatments will likely be most effective if started early in the disease process, making sensitive and accurate fluid biomarkers of Aβ and tau especially important.

Outside of imaging, progress in AD diagnostics stems primarily from the assessment of fluid biomarkers of AD. These biomarkers are generally procured from the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and blood plasma and include total tau (T-tau), phosphorylated tau (P-tau) and the 42 amino acid form of of β-amyloid (Aβ42). These core biomarkers reflect AD pathology and have high diagnostic accuracy, which is especially useful in diagnosing AD in prodromal and mild cognitive impairment cases.

Because the CSF is in direct contact with the extracellular space of the brain, biochemical changes in the brain can be detected in the CSF. Assays to detect Aβ42 led to the discovery that Aβ42 in AD is decreased to approximately 50% of control levels, making the measurement of Aβ42 a useful clinical tool. Measurements of T-tau (around 300% of control in AD patients) and P-tau biomarkers (a marked increase in AD patients) in combination with Aβ42, however, provide an even more powerful diagnostic assay.

Fluid biomarkers for AD other than Aβ and tau have been posited, but positive results have been difficult to replicate. Novel biomarkers with the most promise inlcude the amyloid precursor proteins sAPPβ and sAPPα, β-site APP cleaving enzyme-1 (BACE1), Aβ oligomers, and other Aβ isoforms. Additionally, neuronal and synaptic proteins as well as various inflammatory molecules and markers of oxidative stress may prove valuable as CSF biomarkers. Studies of plasma biomarkers such as those investigating plasma Aβ have yielded contradictory results, but promising novel blood biomarkers for AD may be found in certain signaling and inflammatory proteins.

Taken together, progress in brain imaging and identification of fluid biomarkers hold great promise in improved diagnosis of AD cases. When combined with expected drug therapies we may be able to delay the onset of neurodegeneration and associated cognitive impairment significantly. In the meantime, early diagnosis is helpful in stratifying AD cases, monitoring potential treatments for safety, and monitoring the biochemical effect of drugs. For cryonicists, early diagnosis can help guide treatment and end-of-life care decisions in order to optimize cryopreservation of the brain.

So – back to the original question. What can we predict about the AD landscape in 2020?

Besides continued progress in early diagnosis through brain imaging and fluid biomarkers, the authors anticipate that advances in whole-genome and exome sequencing will lead to a better understanding of all of the genes that contribute to overall genetic risk of AD. Additionally, improved ability to sense and detect the proteins that aggregate in AD and to distinguish these different assembly forms and to correlate the various conformations with cellular, synaptic, and brain network dysfunction should be forthcoming in the next few years. Lastly, we will continue to improve our understanding of the cell biology of neurodegeneration as well as cell-cell interactions and inflammation, providing new insights into what is important and what is not in AD pathogenesis and how it differs across individuals, which will lead, in turn, to improved clinical trials and treatment strategies.

Originally published as an article (in the Cooler Minds Prevail series) in Cryonics magazine, April, 2013

10. November 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience, Science

Cryonics seeks to preserve terminally ill humans in anticipation of future medical advances that may restore these patients to youthful vigor, cure their devastating diseases, and resuscitate them from cryopreservation itself. At the core of this mission lies the goal of preserving that which we know to be most important to continuity of the person him/herself: the brain.

Absent reversible cryopreservation of the brain (i.e., maintenance of viability), a cryonicist’s best hope for eventual resuscitation lies in preserving brain ultrastructure with as much fidelity as possible. Improvements in cryopreservation solutions, methodologies, and protocols from the field to the operating room have greatly enhanced our ability to meet this objective, as evidenced by microscopic evaluations of tissues vitrified in the lab. More recently, CT scans of patients after neuropreservation have provided valuable feedback as to the efficacy of cryoprotective perfusion in actual Alcor cases. Such progress bodes well for good patient outcomes.

But even our greatest attempts at optimal preservation are thwarted by issues such as long ischemic periods resulting in significant perfusion impairment or even the inability to perfuse at all. So how do we evaluate these patients in light of our objective?

Perhaps the best place to start is the extreme. Let us consider, for example, a prehistoric human brain discovered in 2008 at a construction site in York, UK. A paper published in 2011 in the Journal of Archaeological Science (“Exceptional preservation of a prehistoric human brain from Heslington, Yorkshire, UK”) provides gross and histological observations as well as preliminary results of chemical assays in order to determine the extent and cause of preservation of the brain. Low-powered reflected light microscopy and electron microscopy were performed to explore the surviving morphology and histology of the brain, while highly sensitive neuroimmunological techniques and proteomic analyses were employed to explore brain chemistry.

Examination of the skull indicated death by an abrupt trauma to the neck followed by deliberate dismemberment of the head between veretebrae C2 and C3. Significantly, the authors report “no trace of microbial activity, bacterial or fungal, with none of the porosity or ‘tunneling’ that is characteristic of putrefactive microorganisms.” Examination of the brain masses revealed recognizable sulci and gyri, but neither macroscopic nor CT evaluation could differentiate between grey and white matter.

Histological examination of the brain masses showed “a homogenous, amorphous substance that had not retained any cellular or matrix structure.” Transmission electronic microscopy (TEM) also did not detect any surviving cellular structure, although it did reveal what appeared to be “numerous morphologically degraded structures characteristic of the myelin sheath of nerve fibres.”

Preliminary biomolecular analysis found only 5% of the brain was detectable as hydrolysable amino acids, in contrast to fresh brain tissue of which proteins represent more than 1/3 of dry weight. When compared with a fresh brain, the Heslington brain was also depleted in polar amino acids and enriched in hydrophobic amino acids. Very little undegraded solventsoluble brain lipid was preserved (0.8%- 1.1% wet weight compared with 17.1% for rat brain). In addition, there was an almost complete absence of phospholipids and only a trace of cholesterol, while degradation products of a wide range of lipids were found in abundance.

Ultimately, the authors determined that the preservation of this brain was due to decapitation (thus eliminating the movement of putrefying bacteria from the gut to the brain) followed by inhibition of postmortem putrefaction achieved through rapid burial into fine-grained wet sediment. They go on to argue that this type of preservation is not as unusual as one might think, citing several similar examples of preserved prehistoric human brains, almost always found in wet burial environments.

While interesting in its own right, few would argue that the Heslington brain represents a state of preservation amenable to resuscitation. The ability to infer anything beyond gross macro structure has been obliterated and the normal chemical constituents of the brain have dissolved almost completely into the surrounding environment. Clearly, much of the look of a brain can be retained while none of the person’s identity remains (or is recoverable).

Let us then look at a situation that hits a little closer to home. Published in Forensic Science International in 2007, an article entitled “Autopsy at 2 months after death: Brain is satisfactorily preserved for neuropathology” provides us with considerable food for thought. In this example, a 77-year-old woman’s whole body was stored postmortem in a 3°C cooling chamber for 2 months prior to chemical fixation of her brain at autopsy.

The authors describe moderate autolysis of internal organs of the body, indicating the start of decomposition and putrefaction, as well as reduced tissue consistency and superficial areas of disintegration of the brain. Overall gross morphology was sufficiently preserved to allow macroscopic examination and application of neuropathological methods for diagnosis of neurological disorders. Importantly, they also report that “histologically, normal brain structures including all major parenchymal cell types (neurons, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, microglia), neuropil, axons, and myelin sheaths were preserved.”

In this case, the use of cold temperatures (3°C) drastically slowed, but did not stop, deterioration of the brain. However, enough of the brain’s chemical constituents and physical structure remained to provide the basis for possible future resuscitation. And while this woman’s brain was preserved by chemical diffusion over the course of 9 weeks (allowing for continued degradation of subcortical tissues during the course of fixation), the use of cryogenic temperatures to quickly preserve her brain would also have been possible, as has been the situation for many “straight frozen” Alcor patients who were received in similar condition.

Exactly where the line between recoverability and non-recoverability — resulting in information-theoretic death — exists is yet to be determined. And while we push, rightfully, for ever greater preservation methods, we do well to remember that those preserved under lessthan- optimal conditions are by no means lost causes. Preserved information, even in fractured and distorted form, may well be adequate to infer the original state.

Originally published as an article (in the Cooler Minds Prevail series) in Cryonics magazine, March, 2013

20. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Neuroscience, Science

Cryonics Magazine, February 2013

This is the first entry in a new series of short articles about neuroscience and its implications for the field of human cryopreservation and life extension. In this article I discuss the relationship of the brain to consciousness and knowledge acquisition before venturing into more specific and practical topics

What is consciousness? Most of us understand the word in context, but when asked to define it we are suddenly at a loss for words or at best we offer a description that seems wholly inadequate. Scientists, philosophers, and religious scholars have debated the source, meaning, and nature of consciousness for all of recorded history. But with the rise of neuroscience over the past few decades, it now seems as though explaining the nature and mechanisms of conscious experience in neurobiological terms may be an attainable goal.

The recent work on consciousness by neuroscientists has left certain philosophers more frustrated than ever before, including the likes of Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers. They suspect that consciousness may be quite different and separate from the brain circuitry proposed to underlie it.

Consciousness has appeared to be a strange and undefinable phenomenon for a very long time. Daniel Dennett captured the feeling very nicely in the 1970s:

“Consciousness appears to be the last bastion of occult properties, epiphenomena, immeasurable subjective states — in short, the one area of mind best left to the philosophers. Let them make fools of themselves trying to corral the quicksilver of “phenomenology” into a respectable theory.”(1)

Consciousness no longer appears this strange to many researchers, but the philosophers just mentioned continue to hold that it may not be reduced to brain processes active in cognition. A common philosophical complaint is that any neurobiological theory of consciousness will always leave something out. What it will always leave out is the feeling itself — the feeling of what it is like to be aware, to see green, to smell flowers, and so on (Nagel 1974; Chalmers, 1996). These are so-called qualia — the experiences themselves — and these are what are important about consciousness. The philosopher making this argument may go on to conclude that no science can ever really explain qualia because it cannot demonstrate what it is like to see green if you have never seen green. Ultimately, they argue, consciousness is beyond the reach of scientific understanding.

By contrast, neuroscientists take for granted that consciousness will be domesticated along with the rest of cognition. Indeed, this work tends to assume that neuroscience will not only identify correlates of consciousness, but will eventually tell us what consciousness is. By and large, these neuroscientific efforts have been directed toward cortical regions of the brain, cortical pathways, and cortical activity. This is due, in part, to the prevalence of clinical studies of human patients with region-specific cortical lesions that are correlated with deficits in specific kinds of experiences. This tendency to focus on the cortex may also reflect the common knowledge that humans possess the highest level of consciousness of all animals and have proportionally more cortex than our closest relatives (and — so the supposition goes — therein lies the difference in levels of consciousness).

Another theory of consciousness, offered by Dr. Gerald M. Edelman, aims to resolve this “divorce” between science and the humanities over theories of consciousness. The premise of Edelman’s theory is that the field of neuroscience has already provided enough information about how the brain works to support a scientifically plausible understanding of consciousness. His theory attempts to reconcile the two positions described earlier by examining how consciousness arose in the course of evolution.

In his book on the topic, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, Edelman says:

“An examination of the biological bases of consciousness reveals it to be based in a selectional system. This provides the grounds for understanding the complexity, the irreversibility, and the historical contingency of our phenomenal experience. These properties, which affect how we know, rule out an all-inclusive reduction to scientific description of certain products of our mental life such as art and ethics. But this does not mean that we have to invoke strange physical states, dualism, or panpsychism to explain the origin of conscious qualia. All of our mental life, reducible and irreducible, is based on the structure and dynamics of our brain.

In essence, Edelman has attempted to construct a comprehensive theory of consciousness that is consistent with the latest available neuroanatomical, neurophysiological, and behavioral data. Calling his idea Neural Darwinism, Edelman explains that the brain is a selection system that operates within an individual’s lifetime. Neural Darwinism proposes that, during neurogenesis, an enormous “primary repertoire” of physically connected populations of neurons arises. Subsequently, a “secondary repertoire” of functionally defined neuronal groups emerges as the animal experiences the world. A neural “value system,” developed over the course of evolution and believed to be made up of small populations of neurons within deep subcortical structures, is proposed to assign salience to particular stimuli encountered by the animal in order to select patterns of activity.

For example, when the response to a given stimulus leads to a positive outcome the value system will reinforce the synaptic connections between neurons that happened to be firing at that particular moment. When a stimulus is noxious, the value system will similarly strengthen the connections between neurons that happened to be firing at the time the stimulus was encountered, thus increasing the salience of that stimulus. When a stimulus has no salience, synaptic connections between neurons that fired upon first exposure to that stimulus will become weaker with successive exposures.

Importantly, the mapping of the world to the neural substrate is degenerate; that is, no two neuronal groups or maps are the same, either structurally or functionally. These maps are dynamic, and their borders shift with experience. And finally, since each individual has a unique history, no two individuals will express the same neural mappings of the world.

This brings us to the three tenets of Edelman’s theory:

1. Development of neural circuits leads to enormous microscopic anatomical variation that is the result of a process of continual selection;

2. An additional and overlapping set of selective events occurs when the repertoire of anatomical circuits that are formed receives signals because of an animal’s behavior or experience;

3. “Reentry” is the continual signaling from one brain region (or map) to another and back again across massively parallel fibers (axons) that are known to be omnipresent in higher brains.

Edelman thus believes that consciousness is entailed by reentrant activity among cortical areas and the thalamus and by the cortex interacting with itself and with subcortical structures. He suggests that primary consciousness appeared at a time when the thalmocortical system was greatly enlarged, accompanied by an increase in the number of specific thalamic nuclei and by enlargement of the cerebral cortex — probably after the transitions from reptiles to birds and separately to mammals about a quarter of a billion years ago. Higherorder consciousness (i.e., consciousness of consciousness), on the other hand, is due to reentrant connections between conceptual maps of the brain and those areas of the brain capable of symbolic or semantic reference — and it only fully flowered with hominids when true language appeared. Regarding language and its relationship to higher-order consciousness, Edelman explains:

“We do not inherit a language of thought. Instead, concepts are developed from the brain’s mapping of its own perceptual maps. Ultimately, therefore, concepts are initially about the world. Thought itself is based on brain events resulting from the activity of motor regions, activity that does not get conveyed to produce action. It is a premise of brain-based epistemology that subcortical structures such as the basal ganglia are critical in assuring the sequence of such brain events, yielding a kind of presyntax. So thought can occur in the absence of language….

The view of brain-based epistemology is that, after the evolution of a bipedal posture, of a supralaryngeal space, of presyntax for movement in the basal ganglia, and of an enlarged cerebral cortex, language arose as an invention. The theory rejects the notion of a brainbased, genetically inherited, language acquisition device. Instead, it contends that language acquisition is epigenetic. Its acquisition and its spread across speech communities would obviously favor its possessors over nonlinguistic hominids even though no direct inheritance of a universal grammar is at issue. Of course, hominids using language could then be further favored by natural selection acting on those systems of learning that favor language skills.”

Such a theory is attractive because it does not simply concentrate on conscious perception, but it also includes the role of behavior. We do well to keep in mind that moving, planning, deciding, executing plans, and more generally, keeping the body alive, is the fundamental business of the brain. Cognition and consciousness are what they are, and have the nature they have, because of their role in servicing behavior.

An important element of Edelman’s theory that consciousness is entailed by brain activity is that consciousness is not a “thing” or causal agent that does anything in the brain. He writes that “inasmuch as consciousness is a process entailed by neural activity in the reentrant dynamic core it cannot be itself causal.” This process causes a number of “useful” illusions such as “free will.”

Edelman’s theory of consciousness has further implications for the development of brain-based devices (BBDs), which Edelman believes will be conscious in the future as well. His central idea is that the overall structure and dynamics of a BBD, whether conscious or not, must resemble those of real brains in order to function. Unlike robots executing a defined program, the brains of such devices are built to have neuroanatomical structures and neuronal dynamics modeled on those known to have arisen during animal evolution and development.

Such devices currently exist — such as the “Darwin” device under development by The Neurosciences Institute. Darwin devices are situated in environments that allow them to make movements to sample various signal sequences and consequently develop perceptual categories and build appropriate memory systems in response to their experiences in the real world.

And though Edelman recognizes that it is currently not possible to reflect the degree of complexity of the thalmocortical system interacting with a basal ganglia system, much less to have it develop a true language with syntax as well as semantics, he nevertheless suggests that someday a conscious device could probably be built.

More ambitiously, Edelman also thinks that contemporary neuroscience can contribute to a naturalized epistemology. The term “naturalized epistemology” goes back to the analytical philosopher Willard Quine and refers to a movement away from the “justification” (or foundations) of knowledge and emphasizes the empirical processes of knowledge acquisition. Edelman is largely sympathetic towards Quine’s project, but provides a broader evolutionary framework to epistemology that also permits internal states of mind (consciousness).

1 Daniel C. Dennett, “Toward a Cognitive Theory of Consciousness,” in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books, 1978).

26. September 2011 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Health · Tags: , , , ,

As every modern consumer knows, smartphones are today’s go-to portable technology. Everything from GPS navigation to finding a good deal on your next meal or haircut right NOW to a wide variety of games and applications may be had at the touch of a button. But developers of smartphone applications (i.e, “apps”) are only just beginning to realize the true capabilities of having so much computing power in the palm of your hand. Indeed, the possibilities for health monitoring applications in combination with GPS location bodes well for cryonicists.

Until cryonics-specific apps become available, there are several existing applications useful to cryonics members and organizations. Here are some of the most interesting from the Android Market:

ICE (In Case of Emergency):   Emergency personnel look for ICE information in patient mobile phones. This ICE app has a couple of widget options and can be accessed even when the phone is locked. My favorite feature is the ability to put any special instructions (like the protocol from your Alcor bracelet) on the main screen. The app acts primarily as an emergency contact list. Your cryonics service provider should be #1, followed by family and friends who support your cryonics arrangements. Additionally, you may enter your vital stats, medical and dental insurance information, and any known allergies, conditions, and/or medications.

For those with “dumb phones,” just create a contact called “ICE” and enter your cryonics organization’s emergency number. Additional information about placing ICE  numbers in your cell phone may be found in this article by Fred and Linda Chamberlain.

Emergency Button: Emergency Button sends a distress signal with your coordinates to a defined recipient when pressed. This has obvious utility for all matters of personal safety, and can be used to alert your cryonics organization to emergency health situations as soon as they emerge.

Google Latitude: Latitude is a GPS location tracking app. It allows for various privacy settings and can be configured to share only with specific people. A cryonics organization could, with its members’ permission, use such an app for real-time location tracking.

These are just three basic apps that are commonly available and useful to cryonicists now. I hope to be updating this list as improvements in smartphone technology continue.

david_croftDavid Wallace Croft is an Alcor member in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife Shannon and five children, Ada, Ben, Tom, Abe, and Ted.  He is employed as a Java software developer and is a part-time doctoral student.  His contact information and his weblog are available at www.CroftPress.com.

1. How did you first learn about cryonics?

I first learned about cryonics from the Extropians.  I think I first learned of the Extropians from “Wired” magazine.  I really liked what I read in the Extropian Principles so I dug into this subculture online.  I was a volunteer Webmaster for the Extropy Institute for a brief period.

2. When did you join Alcor and what motivated you to become a member?

Along with every other techie, I was swept into the Silicon Valley dot com boom during the late 90’s.  I worked next to Xerox PARC so I would sometimes wander over to attend their guest lectures including a slideshow on the subject of cryonics presented by Dr. Ralph Merkle.  I had a chance to attend local cryonaut dinners and meetings including a meeting at the Shaw-Merkle residence.  Actually signing up remained on my to-do list for a few years until I saw an ad on the back of the shirt of insurance agent Mr. Rudi Hoffman at an Extropian conference.  I approached him and he helped me make it happen.

3. How does your membership impact your life plans or lifestyle?

My Alcor membership has given me some peace of mind with regard to the terror of impending death.  I lost my faith in the supernatural afterlife at an early age and I struggled with the ramifications.  Now that I am middle-aged with five children, death is less frightening but I still think about my dwindling days with some despair.  My cryonics hope keeps me functional.

I am currently in Dallas but my long-term plan is to find a job in Phoenix, possibly in academia, so that I can establish my retirement residence near Alcor.

4. What do you consider the most challenging aspect(s) of cryonics?

Even amongst my atheist allies, cryonics is considered crazy.  When I read Humanist literature, I see a “mortalist” attitude where an acceptance of death is considered the rational alternative to belief in a supernatural afterlife.

5. Have you met any other Alcor members?

I have enjoyed my fellowship with members over the years, most recently at the Alcor conferences.  Awhile back, we had a cryonauts dinner here in the Dallas area with Dr. Scott Badger, Chana de Wolf, and Todd Huffman; I note that all four of us are involved in the study of the mind and brain.  I had the opportunity to attend one of the annual get-togethers hosted by Max and Natasha More in nearby Austin.  I also sample the CryoNet, Society for Universal Immortalism, and Venturists electronic mailing lists.

6. What areas of Alcor’s program would you like to see developed over the next 5-10 years?

I would like to see more Alcor conferences.  I would also like to see Alcor establish a second operational center in another location.

7. What kind of lasting contribution would you like to make to cryonics?

I would like to help establish a democratic religion for cryonaut brights.  I was inspired by the 1933 “Humanist Manifesto” proposing Humanism as a new religion.  I am the Treasurer and a co-founder of the Society for Universal Immortalism (SfUI), formerly known as the Transhumanist Church, which requires cryonics suspension arrangements before becoming a voting member.  I have also created a website for my own personal micro-religion which I call “Optihumanism”.  In my “Optihumanist Principles”, I have attempted to blend Religious Humanism, Neo-Objectivism, and Immortalism in a concise statement of my beliefs.  Less seriously, I also have a webpage for my “Cryobaptist Church” which makes the tongue in cheek assertion that salvation can be achieved by a post-mortem baptism in liquid Nitrogen.

8. What do your friends and family members think about your cryopreservation arrangements?

In general, my friends and family think it is a bit eccentric.  I am attempting to plant seeds with my wife and children by introducing them to cryonics fiction.

9. What are your hobbies or special interests?

One of my special interests is church-state separation activism.  With the assistance of my Objectivist friend and attorney Dean Cook, my family has legal cases pending challenging the constitutionality of a couple of new laws involving religion in Texas public schools:  a mandatory moment of silence and adding “under God” to the state pledge.

I am also a part-time doctoral student in Cognition and Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas.  Although my Bachelors is in Electrical Engineering, my two Masters degrees had a focus on neuroscience and neuromorphic systems.  As a programmer, I have been hired to work on a number of interesting projects including neural network chip design, intelligent software agents, peer-to-peer frameworks, and multiuser 3D environments.  My academic research could be described as pursuing artificial intelligence via a study of spiking neuronal networks.

10. What would you like to say to other members?

Many of my atheist, humanist, objectivist, and immortalist friends do not have children.  I recommend that you have them if you can.  Children are blessings we give to ourselves.

mammoth.jpg

In “Ice Baby” by Tom Mueller, the May 2009 issue of National Geographic announces the recent discovery of a 40,000 year old baby mammoth in Sibera. She is called Lyuba, named after the wife of the Nenet reindeer herder who found her, and is in near-pristine condition, having even her eyelashes. In fact, besides most of her wooly coat being gone, the only pieces missing (part of her tail and right ear) were destroyed after her recovery. Even so, she is undoubtedly the most complete specimen of mammoth to date.

Of course, paleontologists such as Dan Fisher, who has spent his entire life studying Pleistocene mammoths and mastodons, are excited by this find because Lyuba provides the most complete set of data it is possible to obtain, and all from one animal. Before, Fisher and his colleagues had been forced to infer certain states of health from fossils (primarily teeth) by comparing against similar findings in the mammoth’s closest relative, the elephant. But Lyuba was so well-preserved that Fisher was able to scan her, take tissue samples, and even retrieve stomach contents.

A three-day autopsy, during which Lyuba was allowed to partially thaw to facilitate more invasive procedures, indicated that Lyuba was a well-fed one-month old mammoth at the time of her death, indicating that death was accidental. Supporting these findings was a dense mix of clay and sand in her mouth and throat, which she likely inhaled after falling into riverbank mud, leading to suffocation, but also the probable cause of her excellent preservation. Dense mud would have sealed out oxygen and prevented aerobic microbes from decomposing her soft tissue, and then lactic acid-producing microbes colonized her tissues, effectively “pickling” her carcass. Later, the ground turned to permafrost, freezing her as well.

Following Lyuba’s article in National Geographic is another article entitled “Recipe for a Resurrection” (also by Tom Mueller), which discusses the possibilities for cloning extinct species such as mammoths and Tasmanian tigers. Pointing to the recent success of Teruhiko Wakayama’s team in cloning mice that had been frozen for 16 years, and the recent publishing of 70 percent of the mammoth genome by a team led by Webb Miller and Stephan C. Schuster, the article details the hurdles that still remain in accomplishing this long hoped-for feat.

Oddly enough, though cloning offers no hope of bringing back the same individual organism, the article ends with a  pro-death quote from Tom Gilbert, “an expert in ancient DNA at Copenhagen University who with Schuster and Webb pioneered the harvesting of mammoth DNA from hair,” who “questions both the utility and wisdom of cloning extinct species. —  ‘If you can do a mammoth, you can do anything else that’s dead, including your grandmother. But in a world in global warming and with limited resources for research, do you really want to bring back your dead grandmother?'”

The Field Museum in Chicago is planning an exhibition tour starring Lyuba in 2010, with assistance from the National Geographic Society.

Watch Waking the Baby Mammoth on National Geographic throughout the month of May (next airing May 6).

11. December 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Health, Science · Tags: , ,

Nanotechnology idea-man Robert Freitas, Jr. has published an article in the January 2009 issue of Life Extension Magazine providing a tutorial in nanomedicine and documenting its progression toward real-world application.

In “Nanotechnology and Radically Extended Life Span,” Freitas describes several theoretical medical nanorobots, such as the microbiovore, which would “act like an artificial mechanical white cell, seeking out and digesting unwanted pathogens including bacteria, viruses, or fungi in the bloodstream.” In addition to fighting infection, medical nanorobots could invigorate old or diseased cells by replacing chromosomes with fresh new ones, correcting the cellular damage and mutations that lead to aging.

Freitas and colleagues have performed many analyses and simulations of the types of technologies and tools that will be necessary to create these nanoscale medical robots, filing two patents for the mechanosynthesis of nanorobots. Together with Ralph Merkle, Freitas founded the Nanofactory Collaboration to “coordinate a combined experimental and theoretical R&D program to design and build the first working diamandoid nanofactory.” This effort has involved many collaborations with researchers from nine different organizations and four countries, and has resulted in a dozen academic articles.

Now Freitas is eager to test his theories with the help of scanning probe microscopist Philip Moriarty, who is attempting to build several of Freitas’ mechanosynthesis tooltips. Presumably, the creation of working tooltips will lead directly to their intended purpose: the creation of nanorobots. Freitas hopes to manufacture medical nanorobots that can contribute to radical life extension therapies by the 2020s.

Of course, most cryonicists are of the opinion that nanotechnological interventions will be necessary for the reversal of aging and disease in cryopreserved patients. As we move closer to reversible cryopreservation with improved stabilization protocol and cryoprotectant solutions, perhaps the maturation of nanomedicine and cryonics will coincide.

In the past Alcor has supported Freitas’ work at the expense of supporting research that could improve the quality of its cryopreservation procedures for existing members. It is therefore encouraging to learn that the Life Extension Foundation has contributed money to support Freitas’ work on nanomedicine.

“Buddhism and Epicureanism combat the fear of death by accommodating the emotions to the reasonable certainty of death. Contemporary immortalism (which includes projects such as life extension, cryonic suspension, and universal immortalism) argues that scientific and technological solutions to the problem of death can be found, thus questioning the inevitability of death. Buddhist, Epicurean, and contemporary immortalist approaches to death and the fear of death are explored, compared, and contrasted.”

Read the complete article:

Gregory Jordan  – Fearless in the Face of Death: Buddhist Detachment, Epicurean Equanimity, and Contemporary Immortalism

08. December 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Science, Society · Tags: , ,

A recently conducted study brings a warning to technophiles who think that the facts are all that matter when informing a group of people about a new technology. The fact of the matter is that the message matters more.

In their article “What drives acceptance of nanotechnology?” (Nature Nanotechnology), the Cultural Cognition Project and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies reported that, when presented with balanced information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, a diverse sample of 1500 people who were largely unfamiliar with nanotechnology became deeply divided regarding its safety as compared to a group not shown such information.

The dividing line was cultural: “People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan, the lead author of the study, “while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”

Seeing that people respond so differently to the same information has caused many experts in the field to call for risk-communication strategies that take these findings into account. In this way, they hope to prevent a nanotechnology “culture war”:

“The message matters,” said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology.

01. December 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Health, Science · Tags: , , , , , ,

Over the years, experimental science has developed a standard protocol for the testing of medical hypotheses using animal models which calls for the use of males only. Why? Because no laboratory scientist wants to deal with those pesky female hormones. Female hormone fluctuations are viewed as just another variable to be controlled (generally by excluding females altogether) — all the better for making interpretation of results simple and straightforward.

But, as common sense might dictate, it turns out that results from male-only animal models often give a less-than-accurate view of the whole picture when this research is translated and applied to treatment of disease in humans. Why? Because, as most people without a doctorate in physiology can tell you, physiological gender differences exist. Is it any surprise, then, that disease treatment and prevention should also be prescribed with these physiological differences in mind?

And so the buzz for the past few years in the medical community is the astonishing fact that stroke treatment and prevention are not the same in men and women. In labs that have recently begun to investigate these differences, drugs that were found to protect male brains against stroke in animal models did nothing to protect female brains. The major message behind all this press: doctors cannot continue to apply one-size-fits-all prescriptions for stroke prevention and treatment.

The real fact is that it is even more complicated than a “simple” physiological difference. Traditionally, cardiovascular disease has been viewed as a “man’s disease” (men have about a 19 percent greater chance of stroke than women). Accordingly, studies have found that women are less likely to receive prescriptions for blood pressure medications or be advised to take aspirin, both of which have been shown to reduce stroke risk. Strangely, women are less often treated after having a stroke, even though they appear to respond better to acute stroke treatment (such as tissue plasminogen activator) than men. So while men do indeed have more strokes, women are still more likely to die from stroke.

Women are also at increased risk if they take birth control pills, use hormone replacement therapy, have a thick waist and high triglycerides, or are migraine sufferers. And, contrary to anecdotal evidence, women appear to be less likely to go to the hospital at the first sign of stroke symptoms.

Oregon Health and Science University is at the forefront of research into gender differences in medicine, having developed the first research institute of its kind, the OHSU Research Center for Gender-Based Medicine. Given that Oregon recently ranked 46th out of 50 states for incidence of stroke deaths among women (as reported by Making the Grade on Women’s Health: A National and State-by-State Report Card, 2007), there is obviously a need for gender-based medical research to save the lives of women at increased risk of cardiovascular and other disease.