Need a Head Transplant?

It sounds unbelievable, but the idea of transplanting a human head onto another body is quickly moving out of the realm of science fiction, and is now a distinct possibility in the near-future.  The last major medical obstacle, that of rejoining a head onto the spinal column of the "donor body" may soon be overcome, with the recent advent of stem-cell treatment.  Medical research has shown that it is possible to use stem-cells to successfully connect the severed nerve endings of a disembodied head with a new body, giving the person full mobility.  Of course, the ultimate obstacle would be to find a new living healthy body, since no-one would ever willingly donate their own.  This obstacle could be overcome with the use of human cloning.  Theoretically, a person could have his cells cloned into a new body, albeit a body whose DNA has been manipulated in such a way that the body did not possess a head, because a person born without a brain might not be legally considered to be a being possessing human rights, at least outside the United States where cloning of fully formed humans is currently illegal. 

The odds of successfully transplanting only the brain are even slimmer than transplanting the entire head itself, due to the problem of having to reconnect the countless number of nerve-endings from the spinal column to the new brain.  On the other hand, by transplanting the whole head, the nerve-endings are kept bundled neatly together.  Stem-cells that have been programmed to transform into new nerve tissue would then be injected into the area where the head and spinal column have been connected, eventually fusing the nerve endings together. 

Setting aside the issue of medical ethics, a plausible hypothetical scenario would be that around the year 2020, a very rich person could fund a medical laboratory in a country that would allow the cloning of a new (headless) body on which to attach his head, giving that person a much longer lifespan.  Then, when that body wore out or was defective, yet another body could be cloned.  The advantage of having oneself cloned is that it would eliminate the problem of immune response, i.e. tissue rejection.

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Interestingly, the medical practice of transplanting organs in general, such as transplanting human hearts and kidneys, began in earnest as early as 1908, when medical experiments were performed to find out if a dog's head could be kept functioning after being removed from its body - and if so, for how long.  In that year, Dr Charles Guthrie succeeded in grafting a head of a dog onto another dog, connecting their blood vessels so that "they" shared the same circulatory system.  The severed head could actually lick with its tongue, move its ears and blink its eyes, while the other dog, to which the head was attached, remained healthy.

In the 1930s and 40s, medical researchers in the Soviet Union were leading the way in the field of limb grafting and blood vessel grafting, a precursor to the transplantation of human organs in the 1960s.  They were able to keep severed animal heads alive and functioning indefinitely by joining the blood vessels with a mechanical circulatory system, a series of pumps and rubber hoses.  The Soviets' most important research had to do with proving that an animal (under anesthesia so the animal felt no pain) could be resuscitated after artificially inducing death by stopping the functioning of the animal's heart and lungs.  This they achieved by pumping out the animal's blood until heart and lungs stopped functioning.  Several minutes later, after "death", they would pump the blood back into the animal.  They successfully restored the resuscitated animals to complete heath (in most cases) within two weeks.

Throughout the 1950s, similar experiments with grafting animal heads onto living animals were carried out in the Soviet Union, under the direction of Dr Vladimir Demikhov (whose work in this field was greatly admired by Dr Christian Baarnard, the first surgeon to successfully perform a human heart transplant).  Due to the advances of medical technology, the time required to successfully graft a head onto a living body decreased dramatically.  The major stumbling block of immune response prevented the grafted heads from surviving longer than for a few weeks.  In the 1960s and early 70s, researchers at Case Western University in the United States carried out head transplant experiments with monkeys, some of which survived for many weeks.  After one transplant operation, a monkey that had had a new head transplanted onto its body bit one of the researchers, drawing blood.  In the 90s and early 21st century, head transplantations with monkeys were performed in Japan and the United States.