Head Transplants?


This had been tried on animals since the 1950s, but the problem has always been connecting the spinal chord. I don’t doubt that, at some point in the future, the technology will exist to make this possible, and one scientist thinks he may be getting closer:

Canavero describes in a recent paper a step to connect donor and recipient spinal cords – the one component that was missing from previous procedures because the technology to do so was not yet available.

“Tomorrow is today,” Canavero said in an interview. “What was impossible can happen now.”

But completing a head transplant is incredibly tedious, and the spinal cord fusion hasn’t been tested.

Though the procedure’s name suggests otherwise, the recipient would be receiving a new body, not a new head. Both the body-recipient and the body-donor’s heads are severed before the recipient’s is attached to a new body.

To be transplanted, the head would have to be cooled to between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, the two heads must be cut at exactly the same time and in the same operating room. Surgeons then have one hour to connect the head to the donor body, which is also cooled and placed under cardiac arrest.

Canavero’s new development to connect the spinal cords is called the GEMINI procedure, during which surgeons cut the cooled spinal cords with extremely sharp blades.

“It is this ‘clean cut’ the key to spinal cord fusion, in that it allows proximally severed axons to be ‘fused’ with their distal counterparts,” Canavero writes in his paper.

Canavero says in his paper that some chemicals – such as polyethylene glycol, or PEG – can then be used to immediately fuse the spinal cords.

“PEG is easy to administer and has a strong safety record in man,” Canavero writes.

Once the spinal cords of the recipient and donor are successfully connected, the body’s heart can be restarted, pumping blood into the brain, and “normal temperatures will be reached within minutes.”

Canavero told U.S. News that should he receive the necessary funding – about $30 million – the surgery would be possible within two years.

Two years seems unlikely, but we have to assume that at some point this will be technically possible. What then does it mean for ontology? Are we just a head, or does our body matter to our being? Not being gnostics, Catholics believe that the body matters: that it is imbued with intrinsic worth of its own. Will a person still be the same person if 90% of his material being once belonged to another?

There’s some deep theology to be done here.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Wow, this is too weird. How about replacing the heads of a few Supreme Court Jusitices? Their recent rulings show that the current head is deeply implanted in their rear ends. ;)

  • http://www.parafool.com/ victor

    And how long after that is it before the once-revolutionary and miraculous body transplant surgery becomes mostly just used for taxpayer-subsidized sex-change operations.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Thank you for that thoroughly depressing thought.

  • Richelieu88

    And also one step closer to the Handyman from “Bioshock Infinie”: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m6biqcM22X1qgb1o5o4_500.jpg ;-)

  • http://www.parafool.com/ victor

    Thoroughly depressing thoughts are my special-ity!

  • Jo

    Eerily reminds me of the heads in jars in C.S. Lewis’ ‘That Hideous Strength.’ One also has to wonder what kind of psychological trauma this kind of operation would involve.

  • Eisenstern

    I can’t imagine that being inline with Theology of the Body…

  • John Evans

    The question ‘are we our bodies’ isn’t limited to just head transplants. It is possible right now to give people senses they never had before, using technological tools – implanting rare earth magnets in fingertips to allow people to feel electromagnetic fields, or the device that maps images or sonar responses onto the tongue, so the user can ‘see’ the shape of the room using sound (sonar), using the tongue as an ‘eye’ (because of its very densely packed nerve endings). We are, in a large extent, a product of our senses. A person blind from birth has different thoughts about the world than one who could see, as they have experienced different things. Even something as mundane as the first time we get behind the wheel and drive changes us, as it is an experience we never had before. I would suggest that we are constantly changing based on experience, and altering someone’s experience to the extent that giving them a new body would cannot help but profoundly change who they are.

  • Geoffrey Miller

    For the more speculative Thomists among us: What happens if you transplant a priest’s head, against his will, onto a female body, and they get pregnant? Can they still consecrate the Eucharist? Are they a priest?

    Expect persecution later this century to be…horrifying. There’s no greater way to assault the male priesthood, and opposition to things like transgenderism, than by forcing your opponents into such quandaries. Torture in the future isn’t going to be about death. It’ll be about literally making you walk in someone else’s shoes.

  • TKDB

    Thankfully, I don’t imagine that ever being likely. The thing about transplants is that the body tends to reject transplanted tissue. This can be worked around by using immunosuppressants to block the rejection response, but that’s a lifelong thing that tends to come with a lot of nasty side effects. I imagine this would not ever be considered a reasonable price to pay for the alleviation of gender dysphoria.
    Not to mention the issue of donor body availability. It’s not like you can just dig around in the morgue for any old body to graft your head onto, and it sounds like this process is even more demanding than the organ transplants currently possible with the tech we have today. Considering we can never manage to get enough individual organs for transplants necessary to save lives, I can’t imagine we’ll ever get to the point where one could get an entire body for something far less pressing like transsexualism.

    …Unless maybe there were some kind of mass euthanasia project churning out bodies from culled “undesirables”, but in that case I think we’d have bigger things to worry about.