Head Transplants Are Real. And A Terrible Idea.
An Italian doctor says head transplants could be possible in the next two years. But just because we can, does that mean we should?
Please allow me to introduce the opening scene of a science fiction film to you. If you don’t like science fiction, just pretend it’s another a formulaic Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl rom-com or a Daniel Craig 007 action flick. Whatever floats your boat, just stay with me here. This is important.
We fade in on a top-secret laboratory, beakers bubbling, computers beeping, screens displaying complex mathematical formulae. A mysterious set of feet walk across the screen toward what must be a refrigeration unit. The door opens, and dry ice fog quickly streams out and dissipates eerily. Our mystery man picks up a small box and walks to a waiting table. He opens the box to reveal… Cue dramatic music… a human head. The camera zooms in on the box, where a sticker says “LIVE HUMAN—FOR EXPERIMENTATION ONLY.”
Live human head? What?
The mystery man picks up the head and turns to reveal an awaiting headless body covered in medical gadgets lying on an operating table. The head is placed on the body. A team of white-robed doctors descends with scalpels. The music peaks.
It sounds completely ridiculous, something straight out of Hollywood, right? Well, not exactly. If a doctor from Italy is to believed, science fiction may soon become science fact.
Dr. Sergio Canavero, a surgeon from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, proposed exactly this procedure, which he calls the Gemini spinal cord fusion protocol, in a letter to Surgical Neurology International in February. He says that we have the technology (thank you, Six Million Dollar Man), and he believes the procedure will be possible in the next two years.
Wait, according to Back to the Future, aren’t we supposed to have hoverboards first?
The main problem with a full body transplant (or a head transplant, depending on how you choose to view it), is attaching one spinal cord to another, since the brain and spinal cord (the two main components of the central nervous system) cannot regenerate once cut.
The key to success, according to Dr. Canavero, is cutting the two spinal cords with a sharp enough scalpel that trauma to the tissue is minimized, thus maximizing the chances of the tissue healing. The two can then be sewn together using tiny sutures, followed by a special sealant that can supposedly seal leaky nerve cells and “fuse” neurons together, followed by electrical stimulation to encourage regeneration of the nerves. The person would be kept in a coma for several weeks to prevent movement of the neck and allow everything to heal, but it would take months or even years, according to Dr. Canavero, for the nerves of the body to recover.
Wow. Sounds incredibly, ridiculously, fantastically fancy. Surgeons have been transplanting solid organs for decades, doing multi-organ transplants for years, and are now even transplanting faces. So why not go to the extreme and replace a whole body? Now wait one minute. Before you go running off and making your appointment for your body swap, stop and bear with me for a moment. There are two major (and I mean major) problems:
1) Despite Dr. Canavero’s claims, even with recent progress with stem cell technology, medicine has not yet reached this point, and it may never. Even if the procedure were feasible (it isn’t), we have enough trouble maintaining transplanted kidneys, livers, lungs, and hearts. Since the body, not the head, contains the immune tissue, the head would be considered by the body to be the transplanted part. Rejection of just a kidney is difficult enough to prevent and bad enough when it happens. In the worst-case scenario a rejected kidney can be removed or a rejected heart replaced. Imagine the horrors of going to the hospital because your body is rejecting your head. Eek.
That’s the easy problem. Which leads me to:
2) Let’s pretend for a moment that we do have the technology. Just because we can…does that mean we should?
The ethics of transplanting a head or a body are mind-blowing (pun fully intended). This surgery, which is estimated to cost upwards of $13 million, obviously wouldn’t be for the skinny guy who wants a more muscular body or the obese person who wants a quick weight-loss solution (what’s a quicker way to lose weight than by swapping bodies, right?). It would be intended for people with debilitating motor-neuron diseases like Stephen Hawking or with other terminal and incurable illnesses.
So before even discussing the technical aspects (which are probably insurmountable anyway), there are numerous questions that need to be asked that are likely impossible to answer:
• Prior to attempting this feat in humans, we would have try it using small animals followed by monkeys. What ethics review board would approve such a thing? Would this not be considered animal cruelty?
• If the trials were approved and then proved successful, who then would be the first human guinea pig?
• What if the head survives the surgery but not the body? What if the body survives but not the head?
• Are either of those scenarios even possible?
• How would the person react to someone else’s body on his head when he woke up? The psychological trauma alone would be immeasurable.
• What if the head is rejected? Would they then try a second body transplant?
So medical improbability aside, should we?
We may have reached the point where human cloning is possible, but there are clear ethical dangers, and in response several countries—including Australia, Columbia, Greece, Spain, Romania, Portugal, Canada, and Serbia—have passed laws banning it. India has a guideline against it, and the U.K. and U.S. have similar laws pending. Cloning a person may seem like a great idea at first (if you’ve seen Multiplicity, starting Michael Keaton, you know where I’m going with this), but most people recognize that it just isn’t right, even if they can’t say why. The same can be said for transplanting a full human body.
That’s the funny thing about ethics—it may be impossible to say why something is wrong, but can be easy to see that it isn’t. The technical hurdles of a full-body transplant are big (to put it mildly), but the ethical hurdles are even bigger. I don’t like the idea of losing a great mind like Dr. Hawking to an incurable disease, but there are some things that we as humans just shouldn’t do.