Written by Dave Tuttle

February 2019

5 minutes

Talking Brain in a Jar

Neuroscience's Leap into Science Fiction

In the now concluded animated sitcom, Futurama, a delivery boy from 1999 finds himself sent forward through time to the heavily advanced year of 3000. There are talking robots, aliens, and all sorts of wild technology that cause hijinks to ensue.  However, throughout all this, a familiar face is leading the United States, one Richard Milhous Nixon, whose living head has been perfectly preserved in a jar. During the shows run, many other influential historical figures were granted a similar fate.  So now a question unfolds, would it be possible to sustain a human head in a jar as depicted in Futurama?

Maybe in 1000 years a live head in a jar won't be a lofty concept for people to wrap their heads around, but for us who are stuck in the 21st century instead of the 31st, it's a little out there.  But from a modern, scientific perspective, what if instead of perfectly preserving a talking head in a jar, we could merely preserve a talking brain? Many science fiction writers have considered this idea, but what are the possibilities that could actually come to fruition? Well, the answer may surprise you, as neuroscientists have already begun laying the groundwork.

In 1993 neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, published a paper describing how his team was able to preserve an entire, living, guinea pig brain in a fluid filled tank.  This preservation lasted for approximately 8 hours (Mühlethaler, 1993). The size and complexity of the guinea pig brain is relatively simple, yet they are still mammals, and therefore, these experiments provide just the affirmation needed to make the talking-brain-in-a-jar plausible.  

 

But there is even more evidence that supports this outlandish idea, the most recent data coming in 2018.  Researchers at MIT were able to restore circulation to the brains of decapitated pigs for 36 hours (Regalado, 2018).  This study is particularly interesting as ordinary, non-guinea pigs have a very similar body composition to humans, including their central nervous system.  Given this, there is an opportunity that this method of brain preservation could work on primates or even humans.

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Importantly, neither of these studies prove that consciousness can be retained post body-separation, but they nonetheless demonstrate that mammalian brains can be kept alive even when not attached to the rest of the body.

So if human sized mammalian brains can survive in a fluid filled jar, the next question would be, can they talk? Well neuroscientist, Rodolfo Llinás, also performed experiments on the guinea pig brain’s sensory system using electrical impulses to determine functionality and concluded that the brain was indeed responsive to electrical stimulation (Mühlethaler, 1993).  Thus, a live brain that is still responding to external stimuli, potentially, could spontaneously generate electrical impulses as well. However, there is a difference between the neuronal activity generated as a result of electrical stimulation, and the electrical impulses that arise during the production of organized speech. Formulating speech requires a high degree of precise functional organization, the millisecond scale coordination of many thousands of neurons.  Nevertheless, the detached brain maintaining the ability to establish any electrical impulses is a step in the right direction.

This is where the talking part of the brain in a jar comes into play.  There are already multiple  companies attempting to capitalize on brain wave to computer interpreting technology. However it’s unclear whether the current, low-resolution human brain recording tech will have the precision to decipher the complex neural correlates of human speech.  Both technological challenges in improving brain-recording technologies, and computational advances in deciphering recording output, may be required before technology can convert the neural basis of speech into cybernated, real life talking. Should such technological leaps occur, connecting a brain to these recording devices, which in turn are connected to specialized computational interpreters, would allow a brain that is sending electrical impulses to feasibly “talk” through the computer.

The number of advances in technology and in neuroscience for the talking brain in a jar to become reality is extraordinary, but it is not as many as one might originally think when first presented with the idea.  There may come a day when the appearance of a viable, talking brain in a jar is not a forlorn possibility, but an inevitability. The ethical questions that surround this concept nearly outnumber the scientific ones, but as neuroscientists further understand the brain, we inch ever closer to a time where people will have the capability of preserving their brain and consciousness in a jar, just like President Nixon in Futurama.

References:

  1. Mühlethaler, Michel & de Curtis, M & Walton, Kerry & Llinás, Rodolfo. (1993). The Isolated and Perfused Brain of the Guinea-pig In Vitro. The European journal of neuroscience. 5. 915-26.

  2. Regalado, A. (2018, April 27). Researchers are keeping pig brains alive outside the body. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611007/researchers-are-keeping-pig-brains-alive-outside-the-body/

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