In need of a new head? One day that might be possible. IMAGE: Chrkl, CC License.
Science has achieved something truly bizarre: it is now theoretically safe to do…wait for it…head transplants. As in, someone goes to the doctor, is knocked out, decapitated, recapitated, revived, and continues life with the same body but different head. The concept is the obsession of one Dr. Sergio Canavero
What the what? First: the how.
How does one perform a head transplant? Glad you asked. (You asked, right?) The first thing you should know is that it has never been done successfully. Canavero and others have had varying degrees of success with swapping monkey and dog heads, but with head transplants, partial success is a failure. Doctors have been able to get the heads reattached, but have failed to functionally reattach the spinal cords, paralyzing the animals from the neck down, and resulting in their death days later. Strides have been made in reattaching spinal cords in animals lately, and Dr. Canavero cites this in arguing that human spinal cord reattachment should be possible.
But how does one theoretically do a head transplant? Dr. Canavero has it all planned out: one must have the donor (more on the donor in a bit) and the recipient (ditto) in the same operating room at the same time. They are knocked out, their bodies are chilled down to 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit (from above 95 degrees), the heads are cut off at the same time, the donor’s body is placed under cardiac arrest, then surgeon’s have one hour to attach the donated head to its new body and revive the patient.
At this point, or perhaps when you saw the headline, you are probably wondering, just who exactly is donating their head? Here’s the everyone-is-okay-with-this-head-transplant scenario envisioned by Dr. Canavero (that rhymed):
“Donor is a brain dead patient, matched for height and build, immunotype and screened for absence of active systemic and brain disorders. If timing allows, an autotransfusion protocol with D's blood can be enacted for reinfusion after anastomosis.”
So, we’re picturing someone kept on life support who is technically still alive, but not able to function. “Brain dead,” it’s worth noting, doesn’t mean that the brain has ceased all activity—that only happens to people who are completely dead. It does raise the question though: how many functional, but available heads are out there? This is one of the many deal-with-it-later questions raised by Canavero’s paper.
And who is the recipient? From Quartz:
“Paraplegics with qualifying injuries (i.e., enough spinal cord left intact to allow for a head transplant) could in theory regain the full use of a (donor) body. Likewise, patients with muscular dystrophy could be given whole new lives.”
For now, head transplants remain in the realm of theory. Honestly, the thought is sort of terrifying, but if it could be life-changing for people with certain diseases, then perhaps it’s just a matter of squeamishness. On a tangential note, there is some fascinating work regarding personality changes in organ recipients: there is some suggestion that they take on personality traits of their donors. That’s for single kidneys, lungs, occasionally hearts. What happens when you get someone’s whole body? My stomach is protesting, but my head wants to know.