29 Oct Which head would you like? On the transplantation of heads
Most of you will have read or heard of Shelley’s Frankenstein. While the concept of Frankenstein makes for an excellent Halloween story, it can also make for some interesting insights in the dangers of science. A mad scientist interested in evolution and the human body tries to build a human being with stolen body parts, leading to a variety of ethical problems. Can we expect such an undertaking in the near future? Let’s have a look at some recent, historic and some possible future examples.
You might have heard of the Australian toddler who only last month had his head reattached to his body. Jaxon Taylor, 16 months old, sat peacefully in his mother’s car when it collided head-on with another car at a speed of 110km/h. The impact was strong enough to internally detach Jaxon’s head from his spine. So while it wasn’t a true beheading, Jaxon was very lucky to even be alive.
Surgeons in Brisbane, Australia were able to reattach Jaxon’s head to his spine in a mere six hours. Spinal surgeon Askin made effective use of wire and one of the boy’s ribs to graft his vertebrae together. While Jaxon has to sport a halo-brace for eight weeks, he’ll be likely to lead a normal life.
The attachment of the head of one human being onto another human being is a scientific breakthrough not yet achieved. It would likely damage the brain and render the operation useless. However, this hasn’t stopped the Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero from researching the possibility. He wants to be the first surgeon to successfully perform a head transplant on a human being. Luckily for him, a 30-year old Russian with a rare spinal disease offered up his head to be attached to another person’s body.
While there are people who support this ambitious project, many more are against it, either on ethical grounds or because they don’t believe it is possible to achieve. They point out that many similar experiments with animals were unsuccessful.
In 1908 the American physiologist Charles C. Guthrie was successful in grafting one dog’s head to the neck of another dog, effectively creating a two-headed dog. Guthrie was able to let the blood of the intact dog flow through the, now-attached, second dog’s head. Unfortunately the second dog’s head wasn’t able to function, as too much time passed between the beheading and the reattachment. Experiments in the Soviet Union, that practically copied Guthrie’s work on a larger scale, estimated that the second dog’s head would last around six days.
These experiments usually involved an intact animal and attaching another animal’s head, creating Greek hydra’s or Cerberi. Although these experiments have been done, it is unlikely that we’ll see such experiments of attaching a head to head-less body repeated more often. Even if we could, where would we get the spare (living) bodies or heads from? Should we create clones for these bodyparts? I don’t think we’ll be able to make the decision in the coming years, due to the sheer fact that experiments are not at the level that large scale operations on human being can be performed.
Modding your brain
It is unlikely that we’ll be able to buy a new head within the next 50 years. However, there are researchers who experiment with neural implants, for medical and other purposes. Neurostimulators, albeit still in a research phase, have been used since the late 20th century to treat cases of epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
These “other” purposes might or might not include the addition of advanced computers to our brains. A quick review of science fiction literature gives us some ideas of things that might be possible in the near future. In Scalzi’s Old Man’s War-series, every colonial soldier is fitted with a computer which can provide information, communicate and scan for health threats. Gibson’s Neuromancer is another example of a computerised human being, in this case a hacker who is able to pull one of the greatest data heists. We better monitor the inclusion of computers in our brains, as both authors argue that this addition might not be the best fate for humanity. Would you agree on that?
It will take some time before we can switch out our heads or obtain a new body for our head to function on. Nonetheless, don’t let this stop you from speculating. Would you rather have a new body, or would you rather have a new head? Do you want your brain in another head? Let us know in the comments! In the meantime, you can try your hand at head transplantations yourself this tutorial.