The Ethics of Using Plastination to Save Lives

Plastination is a potential alternative to cryonics for the long-term preservation of the brain following death, a way to maintain the fine neural structure that encodes the data of the mind. Given the pace of technological progress, preserved individuals can expect some unknown chance at restoration to active life in the future. The types of technology required for that feat are well understood, and include a near complete control over cellular biochemistry, along with a molecular nanotechnology industry capable of reconstruction of cells and sequestration of preservation chemicals. Whatever the odds for survival turn out to be, they are considerably better than the other option, which is the grave and oblivion. There is no better path to longevity for the billions who will age to death prior to the widespread availability of rejuvenation therapies, and it is perhaps the greatest shame of our age that cryonics and plastination remain niche concerns.

Plastination has been shown to be feasible as the basis for a preservation technology to much the same degree as cryonics, but unlike cryonics it has not yet developed into a practicing industry. While this lengthy article focuses on plastination, the points are also applicable to cryopreservation:

For the most part bioethics is understandably a conservative business. In the past there has been little tolerance for taking life extension seriously. If the possibility was not scorned as wishful thinking it was dismissed as being selfish and a grave danger to society, usually without any real argument. Yet a new generation of scientists and bioethicists are no longer willing to dismiss radical life extension and have begun to seriously examine these issues. The techno-progressive community as well as the general public are also much more informed about the every increasing pace of technology and are less willing to dismiss potential life extension technologies.

Once the information-theoretic definition of death and the fact that a person is their connectome are accepted, any technique that can preserve the information in the brain has the potential for life extension. In chemical brain preservation, rather than using low temperatures to lock the brain in place as is done in cryonics, the brain is placed in stasis by chemical bonding, a procedure also known as plastination. However, the difference between cryonics and chemical brain preservation is no absolute. Newer forms of cryonics use a process called vitrification. Vitrification uses low temperatures and cryoprotectants to turn tissue into a glass like state where decay is extremely slow. Therefore it may be possible to develop hybrid procedures involving elements of both cryonics and chemical brain preservation.

It may seem obvious to some, but we need ask the question of why would anyone pursue brain preservation? Assuming it works, the obvious answer it that the person wishes to continue living. Many bioethicists argue it is wrong to "unnaturally" extend life and that we need to accept death. This may be good advice if there is nothing we can do about death, but it rings hollow when something can be done. After all, no one argued about refusing public health measures beginning in the late nineteenth century which was arguably the first case of significant life extension.

If the world continues its accelerated pace there is every reason to expect that in a few hundred years we will have a complete science of how the brain gives rise to mind, and the technological prowess to routinely upload memories and minds. Citizens of that future world will have conquered disease and death and overcome countless other biological limitations. And they will viscerally understand what today's neuroscience textbooks try to convey: The mind is computational, and a person's unique memories and personality are encoded in the pattern of physical connections between neurons. From that vantage point, future generations will ask: "Why didn't humanity preserve its most priceless possession -the human brain?"