Posted on Jan 02, 2020, 7 p.m.
Straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel to real life the first human head transplant may only be a decade away according to a former NHS neurosurgeon, after figuring out how to achieve the groundbreaking operation.
Former Clinical Lead for Neurosurgery at Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Bruce Mathew, is now an expert in hyperbaric medicine and he is helping divers to recover from cases of the bends.
While working on a science fiction novel he realised that it may be plausible to move the consciousness from one person to another body thanks to recent advancements in the field of robotics, stem cell transplants, as well as nerve surgery that may now make this prospect achievable within the next decade.
Professor Sergio Canavero is also working on the world’s first head transplant, but his controversial work and methods involve severing the head from the spinal column to be reattached to a donor body. Mathew suggests that it is far more effective to take the whole head and spinal cord as a single entity and replace it in a donor body. According to Mathew scientists have already shown that it is possible to reattach nerves a few at a time, with incremental improvements and robotic assistance hundreds may be able to be reattached, thus wiring up the entire spinal cord to another human.
Mathew trained as a neurosurgeon in South Africa before moving to work for the NHS Hospitals, he has been a consultant for over 25 years and has carried out over 10,000 operations, “Initially our intention was to just brainstorm an idea and it seemed rather silly, but then I realised, it actually isn’t. If you transplant the brain and keep the brain and spinal cord together it’s actually not impossible. The spinal cord is the most profound thing imaginable. You need to keep the brain connected to the spinal cord. The idea that you cut the split the spinal cord is utterly ridiculous.”
“The thought of keeping it one piece, has always been totally daunting, but now with modern technology you can do most things. At the moment, you can connect one or two nerves, but with robotics and artificial intelligence we’ll soon be able to do 200 nerves. You would take off all the spinal column, so that you could drop in the whole brain and spinal cord and lumbar sacra into a new body. Obviously it’s very difficult to take out the dura (the protective membrane of the spinal cord) intact without making a hole in it. It will take a number of advancements and incremental steps but it will probably will happen in the next 10 years.”
Mathew admits this approach is of no good to those who have suffered injuries to the spinal cord, but suggests it could be helpful for those with diseases like muscular dystrophy or amputees, and even goes as far as to suggest it may be used to bring back those who have been cryogenically preserved. Ethical and regulation objections most likely will stop even initial experiments on animals, but less scrupulous regimes in some countries may soon be ready to attempt the transfer of consciousness into a new body.
In 2017 Professor Canavero shocked the world after announcing performing a head transplant on a corpse during an 18 hour operation which successfully reconnected the spine, nerves, and blood vessels of two people, this was carried out by a team led by Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China who previously grafted a head into the body of a monkey successfully; collaboration between the two is ongoing.
Mathew believes the collaborative attempts between Ren and Canavero will not work and suggests that his approach will work not only to pass consciousness from one human to another but to also allow the transfer to a robotic body. He says there will be issues to overcome such as whether the head and spine could fully integrate so much DNA from person to person, and that gut bacterial may also need to be transferred as well, but he envisages stem cell transplants could be infused into the donor body to prevent rejection.
“You would take on the DNA of the actual brain and spinal cord, so rather like a bone marrow donor, and you would get rid of donor DNA and then colonise it with that from the person receiving the body,” explains Mathew. “I mean there are huge problems, but it is possible. And you’ve got to remember you’ve got thousands of people in deep freezes, often just heads, and companies who really believe you will one day be able to reawaken them from the dead, cure them of disease, and give them new bodies. In comparison what I’m proposing is fairly conservative.”
“Our story presents a medically coherent and plausible method of transplanting the head and central nervous system of our main character, onto a donor body. For people with degenerative muscle diseases, head transplants of this kind would create the possibility of getting a new body." - Michael J. Lee, author of the novel Chrysalis.
“Chrysalis is about transition,” commented Mathew, who is also a former classmate of Lee’s. “Medical science has made it possible to transplant hearts, faces, wombs and virtually every organ, including bone marrow. These advances in transplantations allows for a metamorphosis of the individual with renewed quality of life and extension of life, thereby transforming disability into ability.”
The question remains if such a procedure is truly necessary, humans procreate effectively at the moment, making there be no need for such a complex surgery. Would it not be better to concentrate on finding cures to diseases that plague humanity, or the real and present dangers affecting our environment,“..but perhaps some bright sparks need a new head to get us started in the right direction.” says Geoffrey Bastin.
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