Enduring Genes, Printed Organs, and Digital Minds: The Science of Everlasting Life

“This Baby Will Live to be 120”: so read the headline, accompanied by an image of a precious smiling baby, that ran across the cover of the May 2013 National Geographic Magazine. The associated article profiled scientists who scan the DNA of
centenarians with the goal of identifying genes that are correlated with
unusually advanced age. Such an approach is rational: some people live longer
than others, and this longevity (as with all human traits) must have at least
some genetic component. Finding the most important genes linked to durability
would allow us to identify the chemical and molecular conditions that encourage
long life, which we could then artificially promote to slow biological aging
and ward off nature’s only guarantee to life: death.

quest to prevent our own demise is, after all, the primary goal of modern
medicine, but our focus on sustaining life has come at a cost. Americans over
65 constituted 13 percent of the population in 2002 but accounted for 36
percent of health care costs, averaging almost four times the expenditures of
their 19-64 year old counterparts, according to the Agency for
Healthcare Research and Quality.

numbers are only expected to rise as the baby boomer generation exponentially
adds to the over-65 demographic, but costs will also increase because our
current methodology for extending life is fundamentally flawed. We aim
primarily to reduce the symptoms of biological aging. Mostly, we fix the
problems that are bound to happen when humans live for around a century,
including cancer, dementia, and less efficient organs. If we are serious as a
species about using technology to prolong life — perhaps indefinitely — we must
undergo a significant shift in mindset, from futilely attempting to repair our bodies as they ail in old age
to rebuilding our bodies to reverse
the process of growing older.

order to realize humankind’s most incredible potential technological
achievement, immortality, at least two advancements must be accomplished.
First, we must be able to synthesize fully functional biological organs from
harvested stem cells. One of the hallmarks of aging is the declining efficiency
of our organs. Though it is unclear why exactly this occurs, in old age, the lungs,
heart, kidneys, and all of the major organs simply stop working as well.

imagine we had the ability to take stem cells—young cells that have not
fully developed — from the kidney of a person in their 20s, then use those cells later
on to grow new kidneys for that person when their original organs begin to
deteriorate. This process would ensure that the synthesized kidneys had the same DNA
as the originals, and it could be repeated indefinitely. Each time somebody’s
organ began to fail, a replacement could simply be produced in a lab.

promise of laboratory-synthesized organs is not far off. In fact, biological
appendages may even be produced on-site at hospitals. This year is expected to
be a landmark year for synthetic organ production. Organovo, a biotech company
based in San Diego, anticipates it will use a 3D printer — which “prints” three-dimensional
organic tissue by adding layers of cells together with incredible accuracy — to
make a fully functional human liver by the end of 2014. If successful, the
“bioprinting” process could theoretically be applied to every major organ, and, given the exponential advancement of technology, it would likely become relatively
inexpensive within the coming decades.

cheap organ replacement is a crucial step to attaining immortality, a more
ephemeral and essential part of “us” must also be replicated for eternal
preservation: our minds. Indeed, who we are as individuals simply boils down to
a story about ourselves we contain in our minds, a story about where we come
from, what we’ve experienced, and how we think. Losing a limb does not make
somebody inherently different, but people diagnosed with severe mental
illnesses like schizophrenia are often said to “become a different person” as a
result of mental changes.

is it possible to copy something as incredibly complex as the mind? The answer
lies in computers. We must develop the capacity to turn all mental events into
digital information that can be read by a computer. As with organ synthesis,
such an advancement may not be as difficult as it sounds. Using functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which traces the parts of the brain that
become active in different conditions, researchers have been able to “decode”
some pretty interesting mental events. Scientists at the University of
California, Berkeley have been able to read and reproduce actual mental images
that subjects were imagining in an fMRI machine and John-Dylan Haynes, the
Director of the Berlin Center for Advanced Neuroimaging, has used fMRI to predict
the outcomes of subjects’ decisions before the subjects themselves were aware
they had even made a decision.

these examples represent fairly crude first steps, they illustrate that
digitalizing brain activity is, in theory, possible. If this
technology continues to advance, we may someday be able to download our
memories, experiences, and personalities onto a hard drive and then upload them to
a new, fully functional body. This ability would represent the closest thing to
what we currently consider immortality to be — indefinitely reproducing our
healthy body while retaining our thoughts and experiences.

if you ask me, this is not what immortality will actually look like in the
future. Nature guarantees that our bodies will break down. It’s as dependable a
fact as the sun rising each morning. So why should we even concern
ourselves with having a body? Virtual
reality that perfectly simulates the real world is much more imminent than the
scenario I’ve described above. If we could turn our minds digital, then insert
them into a digital reality, why would we bother maintaining a physical body
that is guaranteed to fail? Immortality might take the form of a digital cloud
that contains everyone’s minds interacting eternally in a digital reality.

the first to admit I might be crazy. Humans may very well be much too addicted
to our regular analog lives to ever make digital immortality a reality. Other
concerns include whom we allow to run the physical servers if we’re all digital
recreations of ourselves or how we stop software viruses and hackers from
ruining the digital utopia. But hey, a man can dream — and if a man can turn
those dreams into 0s and 1s, that dream might just last forever.

Warren Szewczyk PO ’15 is a neuroscience major who also co-hosts the radio program Reality Check, which explores the intersection of science and the spirit. In his spare time, he is an avid writer of spoken-word poetry. 

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