Brain Prize Eval Fund Near Enough

Great news: The cryonics organization Alcor is adding $10,000 to the Brain Preservation Technology Prize Evaluation Fund. With the other donations counted here (including my $5000), that should bring the prize evaluation fund to near $30,000, which might be near enough (so please donate more):

We [Alcor] are committing $10,000 towards the Evaluation Fund. … Although the Prize itself is fully funded, funds are needed to conduct the evaluation. Alcor’s contribution will make a big difference, since the tests are estimated to cost $25,000 to $50,000.

Alcor does not directly have a horse in this race. The cryopreservation approach is represented by a team from 21st Century Medicine. 21CM aims to demonstrate the quality of ultrastructure preservation that their low temperature vitrification technique can achieve when applied to whole rabbit brains.

We will follow up this announcement of Alcor’s contribution with a longer piece. That article will address claims (currently untested) for the advantages of chemopreservation over cryopreservation. We will critically examine the claim that chemopreservation or plastic embedding would be much cheaper (for individuals not committed to whole body preservation), look at some reasons to expect significant damage caused by chemopreservation of whole brains, identify problems for chemopreservation under less-than-ideal circumstances, explain why the Prize handicaps the cryopreservation option because of the way the test is to be carried out, and will argue why brain preservation technologies should be evaluated by viability criteria as well. (more)

While I look forward to reading their critique, I’ll note no one has accepted my bet offer:

I offer to bet up to $5K that plastination is more likely to win this full prize than cryonics. (more)

My thinking has evolved a bit over the last month. In chemopreservation [= plastination], one fills a brain with plastic-like chemicals, which make strong cross-links bonds between most everything they touch. So there are two times when brain info can be lost: before it is filled with plastic, and after.

Assuming you can keep them safe from melting, burning, etc., plastic brains should last for a very long time:

Brain researchers have looked at samples preserved many decades ago, and see almost no change. Tissues preserved in amber seem to have remain unchanged for forty million years. (more)

So the main issue is how much info is lost before filling with plastic. Now it is obvious that non-fresh brains with collapsed blood vessels pose a serious problem – the plastic might just not get to some places. But for brains filled with plastic within a few minutes of live blood flow, I just can’t see the problem.

For example, imagine that key brain info is encoded in certain key protein densities at tiny synapse pores, with different nearby pores having different key proteins. As long as there are thousands of copies of each key protein in each pore area, the plastic will almost surely usually preserve the info of which kind of proteins were in which areas. Even if some key proteins move away from their pores, most will stay near, and the amino acid sequences that define the proteins will mostly be preserved by the cross-link bonds the plastic makes.

And even if this isn’t true for twenty percent of the key proteins, there is almost surely enough brain system redundancy for this to not matter. Yes, you’d need a finer scan than the Brain Preservation Prize will use to read it, but the info is still there.

So as far as I can tell, the main issue with plastination [= chemopreservation] is how quickly brains can fill with plastic after ordinary blood flow has stopped. If we can find ways to do that well, plastination just wins, I think, at least for the goal of saving the info that is you.

Added 19July: Sad news:

The [Brain Preservation] Foundation has declined [Alcor's] donation because of concerns that it might be perceived as influencing the judges’ decisions.

Added 13Jan’13: They reached their $25K goal!

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  • komponisto

    We will critically examine…
    look at some reasons to expect…
    explain why the Prize handicaps the cryopreservation option …
    argue why brain preservation technologies should be evaluated by [our preferred] criteria 

    Uh-oh. It looks like a rivalry may be developing.

    • Simon Lambert

       Suggestion: consider Alcor’s arguments arguments, once presented, on their actual merit, rather than just speculating on their psychology.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Agreed.  Alcor could be saying that because of rivalry, but also because plastination is doomed and their superior experience makes this obvious to them.  We’ll see.

      • Max More

        Consider this: If plastic embedding (the preferred term) looks as good or better than cryopreservation, there is no reason why Alcor could not offer it. Many of the same organizational and response capabilities would be relevant. But, thanks Eliezer — it may take a little while to jointly write the detailed piece but it will set forth the reasons why chemopreservation/plastic embedding is unlikely to be as good an option.

      • komponisto

        False choice. Of course I will consider Alcor’s arguments on their merit, once they have been presented. At the same time, I won’t hesitate to point out that they presented their conclusions before presenting their arguments (which tends to suggest, even if it doesn’t necessarily imply, that they knew what their conclusions were going to be before they investigated the question).

      • Brian Wowk

        Regarding, “before they investigated the question”:

        It is unfortunate that the Prize and related discussion are framed in a manner that makes it appear as though cryonicists have been operating in ignorance (turning a blind eye?) toward the effects of cryopreservation for decades until the Brain Preservation Foundation came along.  Cryonicists have been obtaining electron micrographs of their work all along    

        This feedback has been the basis of changing from DMSO to glycerol, high molarity glycerol, and then vitrification.  What is new about the Brain Preservation Foundation is not that they will be obtaining micrographs, but that they will be using a new specimen sectionnig technology (ATLUM) to attempt 3D reconstruction.  So in a sense we do know, from both first principles and data, what the results of this analysis should be (good preservation).  If preservation looks reasonable in 2D slices taken in arbitrary directions, but doesn’t look good in a 3D reconstruction using a particular new technology, that suggests methodological issues not preservation defect.  We already know that the preservation is pretty good, in small animal models at least.  We are not operating in a knowledge vacuum.

        Brian Wowk, PhD
        Scientist at 21CM

    • gwern0

       Good – competition!

  • Max More

    Robin, I don’t want to jump the gun on the longer piece I will (probably co-)write, but how well do you understand the plastic embedding process? You say ”
    But for brains filled with plastic within a few minutes of live blood flow, I just can’t see the problem.”  Within a few minutes? How are you going to perfuse with aldehydes, then osmium tetroxide, then ethanol in a few minutes. It’s going to take hours. Then more days — not hours — to perfuse with resin. 

    (That’s all assuming you have an organization who monitors people, sends a standby team, and gets the job done — real world, critical conditions that some pro-chemopreservation commentators are completely ignoring.)I will also be writing at more length about how the Prize handicaps cryopreservation. That may be one reason no one is taking up your bet that “plastination” (“plastic embedding” is the term preferred by others, including the German team, to distinguish the process from the well-publicized artistic work) is more likely to win. The Prize is really set up to test plastic embedding rather than to fairly evaluate cryopreservation. Cryo could lose the prize and still be as good or better. But I’ll detail that point in an article.–Max

    • RobinHanson

      I agree that I may not understand the timescales involved well enough. But it sounds like you agree that a/the central issue is how much key protein diffusion and sequence-breaking occurs over the timescale required to produce the embedding. I do look forward to your detailed critique.

  • Shelley

    As a non-science major but interested, maybe put in one sentence just giving the overall…or laymen’s terms…whatever??

  • V V

    Is it just me or a “fully funded” prize soliciting for donations looks like a big fat scam?

    • Max More

      Someone hasn’t been paying attention! If you read Robin’s initial post, you’ll see that while the Prize itself is fully funded, the costs of actually conducting the tests is not.

      • V V


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  • RobinHanson

    I just added to the post.

  • Benquo

    I just gave $1k