Monday, June 29, 2015

Head transplant developments

In the book Stiff, author Mary Roach wrote a chapter on head transplants which is scary and disturbing. Well, it looks like the idea is back on the agenda, and while there are plenty of ethical and religious concerns, I think many objections are down to a reflexive disgust that causes people to rebel against the idea, as opposed to rational thinking. Personally, I'm all for it.

Here is what the New Scientist reported earlier this year: "Sergio Canavero...published a summary of the technique he believes will allow doctors to transplant a head onto a new body. It involves cooling the recipient's head and the donor body to extend the time their cells can survive without oxygen. The tissue around the neck is dissected and the major blood vessels are linked using tiny tubes, before the spinal cords of each person are cut. Cleanly severing the cords is key, says Canavero."

I've just read that Canavero has his first volunteer:  "Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia, is the first person to volunteer for the procedure. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease - a rare genetic muscle wasting condition, also referred to as type 1 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The condition is caused by the loss of motor neurons in the spinal cord and the brain region connected to the spinal cord. Individuals with the disease are unable to walk and are often unable to sit unaided. Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman disease at the age of 1 and told MailOnline that he volunteered for HEAVEN-GEMINI because he wants the chance of a new body before he dies. '"I can hardly control my body now," he said. "I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease."

The article adds, 'The procedure - which is estimated to take 100 surgeons around 36 hours to complete - will involve spinal cord fusion (SCF). The head from a donor body will be removed using an "ultra-sharp blade" in order to limit the amount of damage the spinal cord sustains.' 

Here is my write up on the gruesome head transplant chapter from Stiff:

In the ghoulish "Just a Head" chapter, we learn of some grim experiments that firmly belong in the realm of science-fiction (I'm thinking Futurama specifically), where Vladimir Demikhlov, a  1950s Soviet Union scientist, transplants the heads of puppies, including shoulders, forelimbs and oesophaguses that emptied outside of the dog, onto the the bodies of other dogs. From his reports:

"09:00 The donors head eagerly drank water or milk, and tugged as if trying to separate itself from the recipient's body"

"22:30 When the recipient was put to bed, the transplanted head bit the finger of a member of staff until it bled"

"February 26, 18:00. The donor's head bit the recipient behind the ear, so the latter yelped..."

Roach notes that the experiments may not have failed had Demikhlov understood immunology, since the brain enjoys "immunological privilege" i.e. the brain is not rejected as hostile foreign body. 

This brings us to Robert White's brain transplant experiments in the 1960s White transplanted isolated brains inside the necks and abdomens of other animals. Roach comments "While the inside of someone else's abdomen is of moderate interest ...it's not the sort of place you want to settle down in to live out the remainder of your years." When Roach meets Robert White he scarily refers to isolation chamber studies where human subjects where fully sensory deprived. The finding was that insanity doesn't take long to set in. Before thinking this is all just cruelty with no purpose, White's experiment were a step on the road to full human head transplant (useful for quadriplegics in an organ [body] donor scenario).

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