/ Experts


Aging is a Search for a New Structure


In order for evolution to work, we need to age, get sick, and die. It also wants for us to advance and develop.  How does it achieve those objectives and can we interfere in its plans? We spoke about this and other issues with professor Vladimir Nikolaevich Shabalin, a Doctor of Medical Sciences, the director of the branch of Russian State Medical University Clinical Research Center of Gerontology of the Russian Ministry of Health and Social Development, as well as a member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

2045: There is an opinion that the human brain ages significantly slower than the human body. Tell us, is that so? How exactly does the brain age?

Vladimir Nikolaevich Shabalin: Aging is the most basic, the most fundamental process that occurs in living matter. You can develop only through the aging process. Aging is a search for a new, more perfect structure of our tissues, and thereby a more perfect structure for their functioning. We receive a certain genetic structure from our parents that determines our somatics (there are also somatic elements in the brain). Every nuclear cell, including brain cells, is constantly producing protein molecules. Some of these proteins are used by the cell itself to replace aging molecules, and other go into general circulation.

A protein molecule carries information about the cell that produced it, about what that cell needs, what the cell can provide for other cells. The protein molecule responds to every change in the outer or interior environment with a change in its secondary and tertiary structure in the form of isomeric transformations. And it stores the connection that it considers most valuable and makes it stronger, more stable. When the molecule becomes very stable, becoming rigid and non-mobile, it ceases to function. The body (in the process of catabolism) breaks it down, and its valuable parts (in the process of anabolism) enter new molecules, while the ineffective parts are excreted from the body. All the structures we produce throughout the course of our lives sooner or later become a part of the biosphere, and evolutionary development occurs as a result of these transformations. The foundation of evolutionary development is the food chain (food cycle): animals consume plants, plants consume the remains of animals, microbes consume both, and so on. The structure of living matter undergoes evolutionary reorganization as a result of that cycle of consumption that takes place within the biosphere. Currently the greatest achievement reached by that constant reorganization is our brain. The human brain stands at the top of an enormous pyramid of all the evolutionary changes that have taken place within Earth’s biosphere, creating and eliminating millions of species and billions of individual organisms.


2045: Why must we die, instead of living forever, continuing to evolve?

Mr. Shabalin: Just as we do not express remorse over the death of one of the billions of cells in our body, the biosphere is not particularly concerned when one of us leaves this world. After all, that person fulfilled his function in life. Within the limitations established by the genome, he contributed to the development of the structure of living matter and provided it with new opportunities to make further progress. The biosphere has ceased growing—it is only making qualitative advances, is evolving structurally. But in order to create something new, you have to process the old. Nothing is lost in the biosphere and nothing is separated from it; everything is in a state of constant transformation. At the current stage of evolution, the issue of the size of human population has been practically solved (a critical mass of the highest-quality living matter—a critical mass of the biological form Homo Sapiens—has accumulated): according to experts’ estimates, the population of Earth will reach 12 billion in the second half of this century, and that is the maximum number that our planet is capable of sustaining.

There are currently almost one and a half million species of living matter on this earth—that’s a mere 1% of all the species that have ever existed, meaning that 99% of all the species of living matter that have at one time or another existed on Earth are no longer on the evolutionary scene. Humans are also a transitional type—they too will dissolve in the eternal cycle of life. But humanity’s time on Earth will not pass without a trace. Humanity will most certainly have a branch of more highly developed life that will extend.

A number of evolutionary stages have been undergone on Earth. The first was physical evolution, which resulted in the formation of atoms. Then there was chemical evolution, which resulted in the formation of molecules, including large molecules, protocells. The outcome of the next stage was biological evolution, when cells appeared, along with multicellular organisms and species, including humans. At present evolution has concentrated its attention on the human brain as the highest achievement of the structural and functional development of living matter. On top of that, we are currently going through a critical period of evolution, one of fundamental importance: the transition to the intelligent stage of evolutionary development. Our intelligence has evolved to the point that it is beginning to interfere in the process of evolution—to the point that it is leaving behind the principle of progress toward perfection by way of trial and error and instead is forcing evolution to move toward a directed search for new structures of life.

The "2045" Initiative may end up playing a role in the intelligence evolution. Its central goal should be the creation of a particular set of conditions that will foster the further advancement of the human brain, conditions that include biological, chemical, physical, technical, and other elements of the brain’s life support system. The concentrated efforts made by an array of specialists to turn this ambitious idea into reality gives us hope that it may be possible to obtain significant scientific results upon completion of the project.

It should be emphasized that the development of the human brain takes place over the course of its entire existence, all the way until the end of a person’s life. And although the systemic organization of the brain begins to break down some time between age 70 and 80, its local development continues. For example: Why does the memory of old people worsen? This happens because of deterioration of  intercellular connections through which information from memory storage blocks travels to the areas of the brain responsible for analysis—that is, it becomes more difficult to retrieve the necessary information from the archive. However, the actual “information archive” itself is preserved and can be added to. So even people of quite old age continue to contribute to the overall development of their brains. A different question: Why has evolution preserved not only physiological paths of development for living matter but also pathological ones? Why does humanity potentially carry thousands of different diseases within its ranks? The thing is that, when in a pathological state, a person produces special defensive structures that cannot be produced during the body’s physiological development. Then, in the process of daily life in the biosphere, these structures enter other living organisms, providing them with the same benefits.


2045: With regard to pathologies, don’t you think that, instead of replacing individual organs that have stopped functioning properly, it would be easier to replace the entire body? That could be simpler and more effective, since we will get around having to travel the entire way that evolution traveled.

Mr. Shabalin: If you do that, you need to set different goals. Before we do anything else, I say we should try to create a system of life support for the brain alone, as in Alexander Belyayev’s science fiction novel Professor Dowell’s Head. Why worry about the body? Why do we need to move the brain around in physical space when its central asset is the fact that it produces valuable ideas?


2045: Where should we begin in trying to achieve this?

Mr. Shabalin: We should begin with experiments on animals, using natural or medicated, artificial blood. Perfluoro-organic emulsions and polyhemoglobin solutions are already able to carry gases. Plastic components and fueling materials must also be introduced into the liquid that maintains the brain’s life support system. You need “an artificial heart and lungs” and certain other technical devices. These problems are solvable.


2045: What about purifying the blood of toxins?

Mr. Shabalin: There are artificial kidneys, an artificial liver device. In addition, the metabolites of the body and the brain are different both quantitatively and qualitatively. If we’re dealing only with the brain, then we will have fewer problems both with the variety of autotoxins present and with the amount. Without a doubt, the perfusion medium will have to go through detoxification (perfusion is the delivery of nutrients with arterial blood into biological tissue; Ed.).


2045: What, in your opinion, is most difficult: purification, gas supply, or blood supply?

Mr. Shabalin: I don’t see any difficulties here. We know how to fill perfusion mediums with gas and eliminate used-up gases from living tissue. These systems already exist—they just need to be adapted to the purposes of the 2045 project, and we need to see how living tissue, a real living brain, will react to artificial environments. It will have to be worked out what concentration of gases is needed, as will the ratio of fueling materials and plastic components in the perfusion medium—that is, all the elements that will bring about an approximation of natural human blood, all of those things will have to be configured. These difficulties are not insurmountable.


2045: How many parameters will have to be monitored? Are there currently any ways of doing that, or will they have to be developed, too?

Mr. Shabalin: Methods exist now, of course. There are gas analyzers and systems of biochemical blood analysis, and liquid morphology is on a rather high level. The task lies in integrating the separate elements into a unified system of life support that can also analyze itself.


2045: So it’s possible to monitor all the key parameters in real time?

Mr. Shabalin: Yes, of course! Monitoring will be done online.


2045: What do you do if parts of the blood break up when they go through the device, cluttering the blood flow?

Mr. Shabalin: In artificial blood, in an perfluoro-organic emulsion, a globule carrying oxygen is a lot smaller than an erythrocyte, and so there is no problem of deformation. The same holds for a hemoglobin solution. Enough progress has been made in systems of artificial blood circulation that this problem is resolvable.


2045: As far as I know, the longest one can live with an artificial heart is about two years. The patient I’m referring to died as a result of multiple blood clots and strokes that occurred, most likely, as a result of imperfections in the device.

Mr. Shabalin: An artificial system of life support for the brain located outside the body will be easily accessible in order to eliminate any problems, and any malfunction will be able to be dealt with quickly.


2045: Can the perfluorocarbons that currently exist be used to replace the blood supply for the brain? As far as I know, only rats were able to survive using such substances.

Mr. Shabalin: Perfluoro-organic emulsions have been cleared for use in clinical practice. They were used in Afghanistan on the battlefield for people who lost a large amount of blood, and they performed rather well. They have one problem: They linger in living tissue for a rather long time. But that issue can be resolved. We will keep searching and will identify more effective mediums for maintaining life support in the brain.


2045: As far as I understand, it will be necessary to stimulate the brain, given that its job is to control the body, and without feedback from the body, individual sections of the brain could begin to die off or degenerate.

Mr. Shabalin: That is a particularly vital problem. The thing is that the cerebral cortex does not control somatics. Somatics is controlled by the subcortical region and other subjacent regions of the brain, while the cerebral cortex is where intellectual activity takes place. In my opinion, the separation of the somatic structures will not affect brain function. However, all the chemical and psychological states of operation are separated from the physical brain. We cannot predict how difficult it will be to maintain normal intellectual functioning.


2045: When we talk about the brain, the question arises: Where are its boundaries? Does the medulla oblongata or the spinal cord with its nerves have to be transferred into an artificial body as well?

Mr. Shabalin: If the main objective is the creation of a cyborg, then of course you have to preserve the entire central nervous system. If we only want to preserve intellectual functioning, then there’s no need to do that.


2045: How much would it complicate the project to transfer both the brain and the spinal cord into a new body?

Mr. Shabalin: In maintaining life support for the organic tissue, the complications will be minimal, but in terms of creating bioelectric contacts, a lot of issues will have to be resolved. At the same time, the more organic material you have and the less artificial material, the easier the central task becomes. Otherwise, when building a cyborg, we will have to replace the functions of the subjacent regions of the central nervous system with artificial equivalents.


2045: In what kind of setting do you think such work could be done? Does it make sense to create a separate laboratory, or should the work be distributed among various research centers?

Mr. Shabalin: I think that at the initial stage, the work should be taken on by separate laboratories that already exist, and later the work can be concentrated at a single institution. If you begin by organizing a single integrated center, you could lose a lot of time.


2045: Would it be possible for us to formulate a clear and concrete plan in order to receive financing by the fall?

Mr. Shabalin: We must draw up a technical plan. I think it’s realistic to think that we could do that by fall.


2045: How many teams will participate? Won’t it be difficult to formulate a unified view, a consensus opinion?

Mr. Shabalin: By my estimates, there will be around 100 teams. Among them there will be chemists and physicists and biologists. We will have to find a common language. The teams will periodically get together and discuss things—after all, science is science—and such difficulties in communication occurred in the past, so people are psychologically prepared for them.

As for the organizational structure, it should have three levels. On the first level should be the leadership, which will define the fundamental areas of focus for the project and deal with logistical issues. The second level will be specialists, researchers, and developers of various types. And the third level will be the manufacturing sector, which will turn the virtual innovations developed by the scientists into material parts of the final structures.


2045: Do you think we can find all the necessary specialists within Russia?

Mr. Shabalin: I think that Russia has been and remains full of intellectuals, despite the significant brain drain with people going abroad. But when the first results are achieved, our countrymen will gladly return and we will even attract foreign specialists.


2045: Does it make sense to recruit graduate students to help with the scientific work of the project?

Mr. Shabalin: Yes, of course—both graduate students and undergraduates. The younger the person, the more optimistic he will be about this project. Moreover, having a group of developers from diverse age groups helps ensure the success of any project. If we secure financing, it will not be very difficult to attract the people we need.


2045: Who are the university and graduate students of today? Is there not the feeling that many talented people are leaving the country?

Mr. Shabalin: Many people are leaving. But that does not mean that they will not return to their home country if they are offered interesting work. A rather large number of capable people remain in Russia. After all, it’s mainly those who know English well who are leaving, and that’s only 10% of people. But knowledge of language and level of intelligence are not interrelated, so we have enough people to solve the most complex problems with our own efforts alone. The key is being well-organized, believing in our ability to succeed, and sufficiently raising the level of society’s interest in the project.


2045: What are this project’s most interesting objectives in your opinion? Which problems are capable of attracting attention because no one has been able to solve them before?

Mr. Shabalin: To me, the most interesting task is creating a neurointerface, a connection between the living and the non-living. After all, living matter came from non-living matter, but no one knows precisely how that happened. How can those “creational interrelations” be restored? To me the most interesting field of research is those interfaces that will be able to make that lost connection. The biggest challenge initially will likely lie in fine-tuning the system of control in the brain of all the activity of the artificial somatic structures. After that, another challenge will be to partially replace and expand the intellectual capabilities of the human brain using elements of artificial intelligence.

Vladimir Nikolayevich

“Russia was and remains full of intellectuals, despite the significant brain drain with people going abroad. But when the first results are achieved, our countrymen will gladly return and we will even attract foreign specialists . . .”

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