Bioethics @ TIU

The Hubris of Head Transplantation

Posted December 19th, 2017 by Mark McQuain

As a rehabilitation physician with an interest in acute spinal cord injury, I try to keep abreast of neuroscience research both in animals and humans that might suggest a breakthrough in spinal cord injury recovery. Sadly, despite increased awareness by the general public from high-profile individuals who suffered this devastating injury (notably Christopher Reeve and his foundation), ongoing research in chemical, cellular transplant (including some stem-cell) and electrical stimulation, and advances in emergency medical and surgical management of the acute spinal injury, medical science has not seen dramatic improvement in spinal cord injury functional recovery since I began my practice almost 30 years ago. I spend some time reviewing the results of my patient’s Internet research into “claims of cures” as they desperately look for any solution to their disability. I thought I had seen everything until I was given a 2015 link to a TEDx talk by Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero and saw a subsequent recent USA Today article regarding his plans for an imminent head transplant scheduled to occur in China sometime later this month or early next year. In fairness, 99.999% of the scientific news coverage condemns the planned surgery (including the TED community) and the popular news coverage consistently leads with a picture of Gene Wilder in his role in the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein (as in this link)

In short, Dr. Canavero is planning to remove the head of a patient who has a severe progressive musculoskeletal disease and transplant it onto an otherwise healthy brain-dead individual who will act as the donor body. Canavero claims that unlike random high-energy trauma that destroys a significant section of the spinal cord as a result of an accident, his technique uses a precision cutting instrument that minimizes cord trauma, combines this with cryopreservation techniques that cool the head down to 12 degrees Celsius during the transplant, and uses a substance commonly used as a laxative called polyethylene glycol (PEG) to reconnect the spinal cord on the donor body followed by proprietary electrical stimulation of the donor body spinal cord to maximize recovery. Sounds pretty easy, right?

Ignoring the ethical issues for a moment, the main overarching technical problem is that the head transplant technique has yet to work when tried on any animals. Subsections of the technique have shown limited benefit such as using PEG to encourage spliced segments of spinal cord to heal. But a success (partial at best) in one small area never guarantees success on a broader application. Condemning this whole endeavor from an ethical standpoint is therefore a moot exercise. Recommending such a surgical procedure that has never been successful should be ethically abhorrent regardless of anyone’s worldview.

One final comment may be worth considering. If you watch the TEDx YouTube link of Dr. Canavero to the bitter end, he gives you a hint at what motivates his work. He makes the case for eventually perfecting his technique such that the human brain can become immortal. Transplanting a head onto a younger body (and repeating the process) effectively allows a head to live forever. He suggests connecting a head to a machine to achieve the same result. He is really talking about immortality of the human consciousness and actually refers to the brain as a filter for consciousness. It seems the pinnacle of human hubris to believe that we can achieve for ourselves immortality unless it were already available to us.

I suggest that John 6:47-51 offers a better way.

2 Responses

  1. Could not agree more on this. Bioethicists will of course though continue to speculate on the ethical ramifications of the enterpise should it ever prove possible and The New Bioethics has an article on full body transplants in the latest issue. It is behind a paywall but I would be happy to supply a copy of the article to anyone who contacts me for one from this discussion board.

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