Full Head Transplant: Fact or Fiction?
Every now and then the idea of head transplants pops up and generally people seem quick to dismiss such a procedure. But really, how close are we to being able to perform such an extensive operation? What would it mean if we were suddenly able to carry such a thing out with minimal negative effects? Lets take a look at the history of the idea and see if we can make a few predictions about where things might be headed in the future.
First, lets take a second and draw the distinction between a head transplant and a brain transplant and explain why, at least in the relative short term, head transplants are really the thing to focus on. Head transplants are significantly less complex than a brain transplant. If you are interested, spend a few minutes playing around with this anatomy application showing some of the nerves in the head and neck.
It should not take you long to notice that there are significantly more nerve connections coming from the brain to the rest of the head than there are connections passing through the neck. For this reason alone it should be obvious why a brain transplant would be significantly more complicated, and thus risky. Further, the new brain casing would have to be a perfect fit for the brain. The brain is extremely sensitive to changes in pressure, this is why with traumatic brain injuries part of the treatment can often involve drilling holes in the skull or even removing small sections of the skull to relieve pressure on the brain. Any added pressure can cause some significant problems. To get a better idea of this take a few second to look over this interesting wikipedia article on Hydrocephalus which to put simply, is a condition caused by excess cerebrospinal fluid in one or more parts of the brain leading to an increase in intracranial pressure.
Now that I feel I have you convinced that a head transplant, rather than a brain transplant, is the way to go lets take a few minutes to examine the history of this type of procedure. It is often reported that Vladimir P. Demikhov conducted the first successful head transplant back in the 50’s but Dr. Robert Joseph White, who I will talk about shortly, points out that the procedure that Demikhov conducted was actually more of a “upper body transplant” which he claims is easier than a head transplant. According to Dr. White, the first true head transplant occurred in 1963 at Case Western Reserve University.
Dr. White speaks about the first head transplant in this short (4:41) video. This includes video and images from the procedure.
So at this point we know we can do it. If it was possible in the 1960’s it is certainly possible today, probably to an even greater degree of success and almost assuredly possible with humans as well. So what hurdles remain?
First, we should note that there is a bit of an issue with the way this procedure is described. When you break it down, you are your brain/mind, not your body. So in effect, what is often described as a head transplant, would be better described as a full body transplant. Now that this misconception has been corrected we can begin to look at some of the problems with a full body transplant. One of the big concerns would be rejection. With any organ transplant there is a huge risk of infection and rejection. Over the years we have gotten a handle on infection to a point but rejection is still a major issue. We do all that we can to match donors for organ transplants as much as possible to prevent this but that only goes so far. This interesting article dives into one of the most effective possible solutions for rejection issues. Cloning. If you transplant a cloned organ there is no risk of infection. Now, things get a little more complicated legally and ethically when you are talking about cloning a replacement body but I will try to dispel, or at least minimize, some of these concerns later in the article.
The second big problem is that of paralysis. At this point, there is no way to fix all of the severed nerves in the neck after the transplant. This is quite unfortunate but I would argue that in many circumstances, as long as you still have your mind, this may actually be preferable to death. This is particularly true when you begin to take a look at recent advancements in repairing catastrophic damage to the spinal cord. The different types of nerves and the reasons why one type is able to heal and the other is not is an entire blog post in and of its self and something that I will keep in mind and hopefully come back to in the future. For now, just understand that until very recently we have had absolutely no success repairing the kind of damage a full body transplant would cause. Fortunately, this great article in the North County Times from earlier this year explains some of the recent advancements in stem cell research and how it applies to and benefits those suffering from spinal cord injuries. In short, new procedures utilizing stem cells have facilitated the partial repair of completely severed spinal cords in rats. It is not that huge of a leap to believe that at the very least partial repair of human spinal cords is just around the corner with much more significant recovery not too much further behind.
So. Now we have the ability to transplant heads. We have the ability to remove rejection concerns. It looks like we have the beginning of the ability to repair the spinal damage such a procedure would cause. It looks like we can do this in a meaningful way. What is stopping us?
Well, the law for one. Many of the steps involved, particularly cloning, would at this point be banned/illegal. But the law can be changed, right? Well, to do so you would need to overcome a number of ethical hurdles. The most significant of which, the need to take your clones body, I think has been solved. Take a look at this bioethics article it briefly discusses a procedure from the late 1990’s that gives scientists the ability to suppress the development of certain parts of an embryo. Apply this to the head of your clone, grow your replacement body for as long as necessary, boom you have a transplant body that I would argue is just as ethical as cloning a heart, lung, or liver for transplant (something few would take issue with).
When or if this ever happens, who knows. It is interesting to think about and would potentially have staggering implications. I have a few curiosities as well. I am 27 years old now. If I start a headless clone body growing on my 3oth birthday and let it process until I turn 55 I now have a 55 year old head and a 25 year old body available for transplant. If I take the leap, so to speak, and transplant the new body to my head what types of rejuvenative effects might that have on my head/brain? Assuming in the next 30ish years we are able to fully overcome the issues with spinal cord damage would I feel like a young man again once I had finished rehab and build up the strength in my new body? Would this extend the amount of time I might have before brain degeneration begins to chip away at my faculties or would I be destined to have an old brain with a young body that I couldn’t use?
Anyway, this was quite long. I might come back and add to it in the future but for now it will suffice. Let me now what you think in the comments! Assuming the science was fully developed and you would suffer no ill effects from the transplant would you grow and headless clone and use the body once your current one started degenerating? What do you think would happen to your mind in this type of situation? Positive or negative effect?
Let me know!
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