Day 890: Put Your Head On My Shoulder, Neck And Everything Else

originally published June 8, 2014

In honor of our species’ unending quest to concoct our own mythical creatures from the depths of our creativity and our most depraved scientific know-how, I give you the head transplant. I’m not referring to the overplayed movie trope in which Jamie Lee Curtis swaps minds with Lindsay Lohan in an effort to see if one another’s bodies could handle their respective addictions to poop-inducing yogurt and cocaine, but rather the physical exchange of crania.

It has happened. Not with humans – you didn’t miss out on some freakish sci-fi tale of weirdness in the news, but our able-handed doctors have performed some rather cunning re-assignments among the brain enclosures of the animal kingdom. Some believe it’s only a matter of time before we get around to a human swap.

We have the technology. Sort of. There isn’t a doctor alive who can reattach a severed spinal cord; full and complete functionality is not at play here. But some variant of this could happen within our lifetime. We just need the right alignment of desperate patients, extreme circumstance and a doctor who has nothing to lose. Sounds like a movie treatment if nothing else.

American physiologist Charles Claude Guthrie’s work on vascular surgery with the Frenchman Alexis Carrel should have earned the guy a Nobel Prize. But Carrel won the prize by himself, likely because the weird experiments Guthrie was into probably freaked out the Prize committee. In 1908, Guthrie became the first to graft one dog’s head onto the neck of another, creating a two-headed beast. Unfortunately, too much time had occurred between the decapitation of the second dog and the restoration of circulation. It wasn’t a lively second head, but it was technically alive.

Vladimir Demikhov of the Soviet Union conquered this macabre playground in the 1950’s, grafting dog heads onto another host and watching both of them enjoy a fully active life. Well… “enjoy” might not be the right word, and “fully active” is way more than a stretch also. But both brains maintained functionality, for a while at least. The dog-heads actually included lungs, front shoulders and legs, with a functioning esophagus that emptied rather unceremoniously outside the conjoined body. It wasn’t an attractive laboratory.

So why engage in these ridiculous experiments? Did the Soviets think they’d unleash a vicious brigade of two-headed atomic hounds on American soil and clinch the Cold War? While that’s an interesting theory (and the basis for another potential movie), Dr. Demikhov actually had noble aspirations. His work was crucial to the science of organ transplant, which at the time wasn’t much of a thing. Throughout the 40’s and 50’s, Dr. Demikhov was a pioneer of transplant surgery, including the savvy use of immuno-suppressants – something that was lacking when Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart-swap in South Africa in 1967.

Neurosurgeon Robert J. White performed the first monkey head transplant in 1970, furrowing many a brow at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. The animal survived decapitation and was able to see, smell, taste and hear the world around it. It even figured out how to convey the “Please kill me!” sensation it probably felt, as it attempted to bite some of the medical staff. But it had a new body, and remained alive for a short while – albeit not as long as it might have had Dr. White left it the hell alone.

In Japan they began experimenting on rats, shortly after Dr. White’s repeat performance of the monkey head-swap in 2001. With the rats, the original head was retained, creating a two-headed beast along the lines of Dr. Demikhov’s dogs. Those doctors figured out that cold temperatures work best for transplant operations. A human brain would need to be cooled to the point where neuron activity slows to a near-halt to keep everything alive during the procedure.

Over at the University of Texas, Drs. William Shawlot and Richard Behringer went for the minimalist approach. If two heads are better than one, maybe no heads would be better than two… somehow. The two created 125 headless mice by wiping out a gene called Lim1 in their developing embryos. The result was a success rate of only four out of 125 surviving until birth, with all four dying immediately after emerging into a world where they lacked the nose and/or mouth with which to breathe.

But hey, we learned something. Probably.

Actually what the doctors were trying to learn was what makes a head function. While the experiments seem on the surface to be the work of insane doctors working with a Frankenstein complex, the end result is inevitably human medicine. When Dr. Jonathan Slack produced headless frog embryos at the University of Bath in England, he was aiming to figure out how to grow human organs independent of bodies for transplantation purposes. I know if my liver gives out (thanks a lot, delicious beer), it would be a comfort to know there were a dozen replacements sitting on a shelf somewhere.

But the spinal cord conundrum makes the swapping of human heads extremely unlikely. Even if someone had the cajones to try it, the patient would likely have to be a quadriplegic with failing organs who wouldn’t mind being quadriplegic in another body. Of course the more likely savior in an instance like that might be stem cells, which can do some pretty amazing things. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers have even seen stem cells help to fix up the severed spinal cords of mice, at least to a point.

Suddenly the doors may be swinging open. If stem cells can somehow repair a human spinal cord then the transplanted head could theoretically find itself on a fully functional body. But now we’re drifting into sci-fi territory. Sort of. It’s more an issue of futurism than fantastical musing.

While the general response to the notion of head transplants has been overwhelmingly negative – a protestor once interrupted a formal banquet to hand Dr. Robert White a bloody replica of a human head whilst calling him “Dr. Butcher” – it’s not a big stretch to imagine the usefulness of such a procedure. Cancer ravaging your lungs? Muscular Dystrophy annihilating your body? Swap your head over to a new bag of bone and muscle and you’ll be fine! One would have to take the same precautions against organ rejection as any transplant recipient would – perhaps more so since this is somewhat of an everything transplant – but those diseases should stay behind with the battered bodies. Sounds almost too strange to be true.

Not to Dr. Sergio Canavero, director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Turin, Italy. He put out a statement last summer expressing his confidence that we have the technology today to pull this off, spinal cord reattachment included. Dr. Canavero figures if the right team of 100 surgeons puts in a 36-hour effort, they could do it. Whether they will or not, with the collective frown of the global community twitching in his direction, remains to be seen.

If it ever happens to me, I only hope that whoever was running my new body before I was sewn to it took better care of it than I’ve taken care of mine. Ease up on the Cheetos – you never know who’ll need your body next.

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