Paging Dr. Frankenstein.
In Turin, Italy, physician Sergio Canevero has promised to perform the world’s first head transplant by 2017 (and has even found a potential donor who is wheelchair- bound, with muscle-wasting Werdnig Hoffman disease). But even his skeptics admit that the technology is about a decade or two away. Part of Canevero’s confidence comes from the successful use of new technology that allows for the body to be cooled during surgery, surgical tools that create a cut on the spinal cord, and machines that allow people to be on bypass during the very long surgery.
The way our system currently works, in order to legally perform the procedure on a human he would have to show that the process works in animals and subject it to peer review. Canevero seems unconcerned, citing a 1970 experiment at Case Western Reserve Medical Center where a surgeon transplanted the head of one rhesus monkey onto another. The animal survived for 10 days on a ventilator before eventually dying, but it’s a first step towards Canevero’s promise. Besides the myriad and almost inconceivable ethical issues, it’s unclear whether a human or animal brain would survive the operation or if the immune system would accept the transplant.
Transplant technology has become more and more sophisticated in the 21st century, with successful face transplants and even the first penis transplant. But a head transplant raises a whole new series of questions. Are you still the same person with an entirely new body? If not, who are you? And who is the donor and who is the recipient (are you receiving a new head or a new body?) (We can also ask what kind of condition the brain might be in after such a procedure. A brain with no memories and an entirely new body results in…who?
Even if Canevero somehow meets his goal in 2017 and, say, performs the operation by transplanting the head of a paraplegic, immobile patient to an able-bodied, dead individual (the least sinister scenario we can think of), how will we identify that person?
And this is the mere beginning of the ethical dilemmas.
How to Transplant a Head (The Week)
Doctor Aims to Perform Head Transplant in 2017, Experts Remain Skeptical (ABC News)
Yes, a Human Head Transplant is Possible, But… (Toronto Star)
Why a Head Transplant Probably Isn’t Happening Any Time Soon (ABC News)
Will a Head Transplant Create a New Person? (CNN)
Full-Body Transplants Are a Crazy, Wildly Unethical Idea (Wired)