Human Head Transplant
No thanks, my head wouldn’t want one, but that’s my view. For all I know your head might want a new body, in which case the possibility seems to be looming. Within two years if society allows it, so says Surgeon Sergio Canavero, director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy. And he’s dead serious, claiming to have almost perfected the technique to carry out a head transplant on to a body whose head would have been removed by a proper surgical operation.
I almost jumped when I saw this piece of news online yesterday, but on reading further I realized that this matter is going to be discussed at a conference in the USA soon. Besides the technical aspects, of course, which are themselves very complicated and fraught as yet with many unanswered questions, there is the ethical dimension which is even more complex. If anything, that is perhaps the issue that is more likely to delay the first attempt at doing such a transplant.
According to the surgeon, the reason one might want a new body would be that one’s own body is diseased very badly with, say, cancer, with no hope of recovery, while the head is still ‘in good condition.’ Which, at first glance, doesn’t sound so unreasonable. But one would have to find a body – a whole body. For example, from someone who is brain dead from an accident or some other cause, but whose body is healthy.
The idea might seem outlandish, even scary, but we will recall that organ transplants – most commonly kidney, heart and cornea – are now performed routinely and have been accepted by most people around the world, although there are certain countries whose cultures are still not quite comfortable with the idea. Thank goodness science is neutral, and can offer plausible options to people in distress.
It may also be remembered that a few years ago, French surgeons carried out the first face transplant, and since then there have been a few more. The reasons have been, for example, a face badly scarred by dog bite, or deformed with a rare disease known as neurofibromatosis.
Here, the face is covered with several fleshy swellings of varying sizes and shapes which are not only ugly and disfiguring, but can as well be painful and interfere with seeing if they affect the eyelids.
In a documentary about the person who suffered from this condition and underwent a successful transplant, he was really so extremely grateful for the procedure that had transformed his face and his life, and so obliged to the donor whose generosity had allowed this to happen.
And so it might be in due course for head transplant for all we know. With the ever-expanding new technical developments, really anything, but anything is in the realm of possibility!
It goes without saying that animal experiments, since the 1950s, have preceded this announcement of a possible human head transplant. Scientists and doctors have tried it out in rats, dogs and monkeys before. They survived for a few days, but died because of rejection by the body of the transplanted head. However, nowadays, there are powerful and effective anti-rejection drugs that can overcome this problem, and what remains therefore is genuine refinement of the surgery.
In this, the major hurdle remains joining the spinal cords of the donor body and the recipient head. The other structures to be joined together – by suturing – are the blood vessels, the nerves and muscles, and the skin, which would be done by established techniques.
Most people would know of course that the head contains the brain, and that the brain is the seat of the mind which has the faculty of ‘will.’ When I ‘will’ my hands or my legs to move, my brain executes the order by translating this ‘will’ – or thought – into electrical signals that travel down the spinal cord (which is really an extension of the brain) which is found in the vertebral canal.
From there, there are nerves that exit at the different levels of the body – neck, thorax, abdomen – and travel outwards towards the different organs and muscles of the body, including the arms and legs. These nerves carry the signals from the brain to the muscles which then ‘obey’ by contracting – think of the boxers showing off their biceps! – which results in movement.
Now from the brain to the spinal cord, there are hundreds of millions of nerve fibres that are thinner than human hair! So how to join them up from the cut end of the head to the cut end of the new body – is the major problem. And the surgeon thinks he has a found a solution, a special glue which he is confident can do the job. He has other options too, but no need to go into all that here. The main point is that this is technically feasible, but it will take time before the signals pass through adequately from the brain to the new nerves and muscles, for the patient to able to walk, during which period – about a year – the person would have to undergo intensive physiotherapy.
A long way off, maybe, and ‘This is why I first spoke about the idea two years ago, to get people talking about it,’ Dr Canavero said. ‘If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else. I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.’
With what science has achieved so far, and with the exponential pace of innovations, one cannot write off any possibility. Dr Canavero might still get it right, who knows!
* Published in print edition on 27 February 2015