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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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.