Is a head transplant actually going to be an option for extending life or changing what it means to be human?
What about brain transplants?
Let’s lump head and brain transplants together. Any possibility of this happening in coming decades?
You can watch my video fact-check of head transplants below.
Background on the idea of head transplant surgery
Given the extreme nature of the idea of taking one person’s head and putting it on another’s body, why does this area attract so much attention?
Immortality has a certain attraction. For thousands of years humans have been obsessed with fighting aging and death.
Over the years there have been all sorts of crazy ideas as to finding a ticket to immortality. These have included the fountain of youth, animal stem cell infusions and even human cloning, which some people don’t seem to realize creates a different person. A clone is not another younger you.
The specific road to supposed immortality talked about most lately is head transplantation, and the media buzz centers on Italian physician Sergio Canavero (picture from his TEDx talk).
He plans to start doing head transplants within about two years.
Is the world ready for that? Will he be ready?
Simply put, no.
Still, Canavero has his fans and some patients have already volunteered to be experimented on to get a new body.
Naively imagining heads and bodies as being akin to Legos for a moment, snap the healthy head onto a new healthy body and you’ve done something pretty astounding. But of course human body parts are not Legos.
What’d be the point of head transplant surgery?
I can see two possible uses.
In the first one, a patient with a healthy brain/mind but profoundly ill body wants to go on living and have a better quality of life. That’s totally understandable.
In the second use, we get to the quest for immortality or at least longer life. Here we imagine a rich, aging person who wants their head put onto that of a young, healthy person. Post-transplant, this person would then go on living with a nice new body, perhaps for an entire additional lifetime.
Of course the human head and brain also age just as fast or faster than the body in many cases so you’d want to have a healthy brain going into this crazy experiment. The observation that “young blood” seems to have some ability to reverse aging in mice might suggest that attaching even an old head with a less than sharp mind to a young body could rejuvenate the brain to some extent.
Where does head transplant surgery technology stand?
In both of the above hypothetical scenarios we run into problems though. First of all, where the heck do you get an otherwise healthy but headless body all set to have the new head attached? I don’t imagine people will be lining up to have their heads chopped off and donate their bodies to others. Perhaps there might be people who are brain dead who wouldn’t mind donating their otherwise healthy bodies? Not many.
Then of course there is the pesky issue of how exactly does one attach a head to a new body. You’ve got all those gazillions of spinal cord fibers and much more to attach properly. Blood vessels, bone, etc.
I just don’t see it happening technologically any time soon in humans.
If you get your wires crossed in the nerves is the new chimeric person going to think, “blow my nose” and end up tickling their toes? There are even more embarrassing or dangerous potential miscues from reattaching nerve fibers the wrong way…that is assuming one can reattach (or hope for spontaneous reattachment of) such fibers at all and have them survive.
And then there’s the whole immune compatibility issue too.
Head transplant surgery in animal models
It would seem so.
In China, researchers are doing head transplants in mice (think gray mouse with brown head) with some mixed results. One of my favorite tech writers, Antonio Regalado, speculated on what this research path might lead to in humans in his tweet below.
Chinese transplant heads of mice. Gotta wonder if contemplating new use for prisoner's bodies http://t.co/RDNhLSab0Q
— Antonio Regalado (@antonioregalado) June 8, 2015
Body donor source?
I guess that also gets at the tough question of the source of donor bodies for head transplants.
A scary thought.
If head transplants are not a serious option any time soon for humans, what are the alternatives? Another idea is to transfer the mind in information form into a machine or transplant the brain into cyborg form or into a somehow available healthy human body (where would that come from?)
I suppose we should “never say never” when it comes to outside the box technological ideas.
The author of an odd 2019 paper argues that head transplants are imminent, citing a recent 18-hour practice run using cadavers.
- Sergio Canavero TED talk on head transplants.
- Surgery’s Far Frontier: Head Transplants, WSJ, Shirley S. Wang.
- PubMed Search for articles with “head transplants” in the title, July 26, 2021.