This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

14Jan/11

Total body transplant. ‘Nuff said.

Maybe it's just me, but as a neuroscientist, the idea of brain transplants is both terrifying and awesome at the same time.  There's something quite unsettling about thinking of a head that is separated from its body, yet still in function, but that also doesn't mean that's impossible.   This is an interview of one Dr. White (who unfortunately passed away recently), a neurosurgeon for many years, and one of the only people to carry out one of the more controversial and complicated procedures I have ever heard of: the total body transplant.

Now, before you get all riled up about the ethical implications of this, a few notes.  One, we're not talking about human beings (yet), but rather monkeys and other kinds of animals (which, depending on your disposition to animal cruelty, still leaves this in moral peril).  Two, these experiments were carried out decades ago, and as far as I know they don't go on presently.

So what exactly is going on here?  Well, essentially Dr. White wanted to take the organ transplant to another level.  We already have medical procedures that can replace one person's heart, lungs, kidneys, etc. with artificial or transplanted replacements, but what about the whole shebang?  What about the entire human body?

As with most procedures this invasive and risky, Dr. White started performing the operation on non-human primates and other animals.  The operation involves effectively removing the entire head from it's original body, cutting off the head of another animal (of the same species, although Mars Attacks! may disagree), and then reassembling the head onto its new body.

This is particularly tricky to pull off because of the delicacy of many essential components of the nervous system.  Surgeons had to be extremely careful not to damage any of the cranial nerves as well as any tissue that was exposed.  However, when all was said and done, they managed to place a monkey's head on a new body, and watch as the monkey successfully carried out various simple functions with its new machinery.  Spooky.

Now, you might be asking "why the hell would anybody want to do something like this (insert your curse on mankind for the abomination it has created here)."  Well, in truth, there are all kinds of situations where one might benefit from a new body, perhaps the most obvious of which is with tetraplegics.

Imagine being in a horrendous accident in which you lose all function of your body from the neck down.  You can still think just as before, but now you have lost almost all ability to carry out your everyday life.  In a world in which total body transplant is a viable option, gaining mobility again might be entirely possible, provided that you had a body to work with, and here's the tricky part.  Technically, the procedure needs two people to work.  One head, and one body.  Where might this second body come from, you might ask?  Well, that's a question I'll leave to the philosophers and politicians, but one possibility is from people who are clinically "brain dead," or who have perfectly functioning bodies, but nobody upstairs to direct them.

Anyways, I've said too much, so I'll just let the video do the rest of the talking.  Whether you think this is morally acceptable or not, it's still an amazing feat of biological engineering and surgical precision.  It sends chills up my spine, I just can't tell if they're the good kind or the bad kind.

via VBS.tv

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