For a while now we’ve had “robotic telepresence” technology enabling users, via a Segway-style body, to Skype themselves into school, weddings, foreign countries — basically anywhere the mechanical body can go. It’s almost like giving someone a second head.
About that whole second head thing…
Dr. Sergio Canavero, an Italian neurosurgeon at the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, recently published an article in Surgical Neurology International about the possibility of human head transplantation. He’s not just talking faces here — he’s talking the whole melon.
His approach sounds fairly Frankensteinian to me. The surgery he proposes involves simultaneously decapitating two human patients, and then fusing the head onto its new body (it’s kind of confusing who would be considered the recipient and who’s the donor here) with polyethylene glycol…essentially, glue.
Seriously? This sounds like something I tried in the first grade with action figures and Barbie dolls.
In his article, Dr. Canavero says, “The greatest technical hurdle to [a head transplant] is of course the reconnection of the donor’s (D)’s and recipients (R)’s spinal cords. It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage.” Dude’s ahead of his time, clearly.
As crazy as it sounds, he just might be right. Head transplants have been performed in the past on dogs, monkeys, and rats, but none have successfully been able to connect the central nervous systems of the donor and recipient. A 1970 head transplant experiment on rhesus monkeys, in which scientists lowered the body temperature, induced cardiac arrest, and then reconnected the heads produced mixed results: the animals’ organs functioned, but they were paralyzed from the neck down due to lack of spinal connection.
But advances in spinal cord fusion, particularly from Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic, may pave the way for Dr. Canavero’s proposed technique. Researchers were able to restore some nervous system functioning in the rats by mending their spinal cords with nerve fibers from their rib cages. They also used chemicals to reduce scarring and promote nerve growth. After six months, the rats regained bladder control, but not the ability to walk.
Even though Dr. Canavero believes that “as little as 10 per cent of descending spinal tracts are sufficient for some voluntary control of locomotion in man,” he knows there’s still a ways to go before this procedure could be tried on humans. Depending on how much research is done in the field, Dr. Canavero estimates that in as few as two years the procedure could be attempted on a patient with progressive muscular dystrophy or other genetic disorders. He also acknowledges that there would likely be serious body image and identity issues for patients with new bodies.
What about the ethics? Well…that’s another subject entirely. Leave that one to the talking heads.