[Science Solitaire] What’s ahead? Hmm, new heads?
I was in high school when Warren Beatty directed and also starred in a film in 1978 called “Heaven Can Wait” where, after an accident , at the moment that his character was dying, his soul was mistakenly removed and made to successively occupy different bodies due to some cosmic mishap.
The film was a take-off from several plays. In fact, the broader philosophical implications touch on the division between body and soul (i.e., mind) that reach as far back in science fiction as Shelley’s Frankenstein. But now, in the year 2013, the scientific scene has come up with a proposal that proves that science, as Carl Sagan once said, is stranger than fiction.
The known address of the mind (at least its main residence) is and has been, the head, in many species, including ours. The highways that lead to and from it make up a vast network of nerve connections spread all over the body.
Transplanting the head
However, the brain which is the organ that sculpts this formless entity of “mind” is found in our heads, in a cavity that is lodged between our ears. If the connections between our heads and our bodies are severed, depending on the extent, we either die or our bodies become oblivious to what our minds command the rest of our body to do.
But if the world will take on the proposal of Sergio Canavero, a neurosurgeon who just outlined in a study published in a scientific journal, the possible technical procedures that could be employed to transplant a human head, then we are literally headed for a brave new world.
Expectedly, the procedural outline involved in transplanting the human head involved some state-of-the-art medical technology and techniques that Canavero thinks are now at hand. Without meaning to oversimplify this mind-boggling, not to mention stomach-churning medical feat, I have to characterize at least in general terms what it would entail.
The “donor” is the one donating his body and the “recipient” is the one whose head is getting the new body. Note that the recipient is always to whom the head belongs , regardless of whether what is being transplanted is an organ or an entire body.
The envisioned surgery involved cooling both bodies that should be in the same surgical area. I must say that I had really supposed that proximity the bodies of the donor and recipient was a primary requirement.
The idea of a headless body waiting for a head-in-transit was just unthinkable for me. It also obviously involved the finest precision in cutting and reconnecting. Canavero maintains that with technology available now in the form of special polymers, each of the millions of fibers connecting the head to the body, including the very crucial links to the spine, would be able to find a way to reconnect by themselves.
In Canavero's study, he cited the usefulness of some of the techniques employed in an actual head transplant done to rhesus monkeys in 1970 with limited success. “Success” because they were able to transplant the head and the monkeys still lived after that. “Limited” because the monkeys only lived for 36 hours and they were still paralyzed from the neck down after the surgery.
Canavero called his proposed project “head anastomosis venture” or HEAVEN. He was aware that his paper has “not addressed the ethical aspects of HEAVEN.” He even cited literature - Thomas Mann's "'The Transposed Heads," - where a woman had to contend with a most complicated story where two people she was in love with were beheaded but later reconnected to the wrong bodies. (Now that is a crossroad that a woman like me would not really welcome since I would now have to deal with two “headless” men who most likely would still refuse to ask for directions.)
If we had been flatworms, getting a new head will not even be a big deal because planary flatworms naturally grow their own heads when decapitated. Recently in a discovery published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, scientists found that these worms can even grow their memories back with their newly regrown heads. They found that as it grew its new head, the worm began to remember where it found its food and how, before it lost its old head. The scientists think that one possible explanation could be that some memories were stored elsewhere other than the head.
I could not find how many neurons a planary flatworm has but it could not be very far from a more commonly studied worm, C. elegans, which has 302. A human has about 80-100 billion neurons in her head alone. If there were more found elsewhere and they store some kind of memory, we have yet to know how these will play out in a new head if head transplantation would successfully take place at all.
Not a whimsical procedure
But seriously, this HEAVEN project would and should still have to cross the many rungs of purgatorial ethics committees and public sentiment before it reaches its apogee.
Canavero is not oblivious to this as he does not at all think it is a whimsical procedure for anyone who simply wants a new head. He thinks this is for those afflicted with conditions where head transplantation seems to be the only hope and so he thinks, this should not be “relegated to the dark corner of medicine.”
Wrapping my head around the idea of transplanted head admittedly gives me the creeps. I would think evolution has innately wired me to instinctively reject anything that would harm the biological chamber where I cradle the 3- pound gelatinous goo that defines who I am.
But am also aware that our instincts are not the only consideration in the brave new world we are entering. But as a science writer, this is one of those that I cannot just shove to the sidelines of my list of stuff to explore and share with you.
So with your forgiveness for the “eww-iness” of the topic and the lame pun about to come, am giving you the heads up...*** - Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire”. Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org