I’m willing to bet you’ve probably seen in the news about a Russian guy by the name of Valery Spiridonov who has volunteered to undergo the first every human head transplant with a target date of 2017.
“Good, Lord, have mercy!” That was my first thought on reading about this. (I’m Southern. Give me a break!) After a little digging, I FINALLY found the TEDx video above of the mad scientist behind this plan. He makes it all seem so simple! Allow me to elucidate why it is not as simple as he makes it out to be.
Like he said, the preliminary experiment with the monkey in the 1970s left the monkey “alive” but unable to move. I’m sure they reconnected the macro structures– muscles, large cardiac vessels, esophagus, trachea– just fine. So yes, the Franken-monkey was “alive” but it couldn’t move. Well, that’s bad. But I would be willing to bet there were other things it couldn’t do besides move. The lower gut has a large bundle of nerves that, much like the spinal cord automatics mentioned in the video, would maintain the majority of lower gut gustatory processes. What about the upper gut? Would the stomach be able to break down that pizza I just had for dinner without the direction of the brain. I would say no. What about excretion? Nope. Welcome back to diapers! Reproductive system? Mostly offline. Cardiorespiratory system? Barely functioning. Without direct stimulation from the vagus nerve, the heart runs about 40 beats per minute. Which, yes, is enough to keep you sort of alive… as long as you don’t or are not moved at all. Any good healthcare worker who’s ever set foot in the acute setting knows that if someone can’t move, they must be moved by the staff at least every 2 hours to prevent bed sores– basically the skin falls off the pressure points on the body. However, the movements might cause this patient to die, because they cannot elevate their heart rate which moving would require, even passively. So maybe they had to implant a pacemaker in the donor body while they were in there to artificially elevate the heart rate.
So here Valery is “alive” after surgery. Now what? I think the first thing that would be a priority to get reconnected would be that vagus nerve, so his new heart and brain can beat as one. Yes, I’m sure the two ends have been sutured together or what have you, but I’m meaning microscopically reconnected. Nerves only function at a microscopic level, they do not function at a macroscopic level. Nerves grow at a rate of approximately 1mm per year (without the fancy spinal cord stimulator which apparently will make everything in the spinal cord reconnect in a month according to Dr. Canavero.) So if the nerve was aligned correctly it might take 6 months to a year for the vagus nerve to come back on line… and that’s if it grows and reattaches in the correct location. Uh huh… The surgeon mentioned in the video that his plan to reconnect the spinal cord involves spinal cord stimulation. That’s all well and good, but what about that vagus nerve? Are we going to stimulate that to grow too? I have never heard of using the stimulator to make the nerves grow, but hypothetically, let’s say the good doctor is correct in that it does. Like I mentioned above, what if the head nerve ends do not connect to the same nerve ends on the body side? The human body is very individualized, especially at the microscopic level. There is no way we can microscopically direct the growth of the nerves to a specific destination. What if the vagus nerve part that controls the heart reattaches to the part that controls the gut? Or in the cord itself, what if the head nerve that once lifted Valery’s big toe connects to body nerve that make Valery pee? So if Valery really wants to pee he has to retrain himself to think about lifting his big toe? And he has to retrain himself to consciously think about every action he performs– some of which were voluntary (like moving) and some of which were involuntary (like digesting) before Valery had this wonderful transplant? I think Valery’s going to need a very large translation book of sorts.
Yes, this sounds fantastic.
All joking and sarcasm aside, this idea is bogus and I feel so sorry for Valery if these crazies really go through with this. Dr. Sergio Canavero is apparently presenting his plan at a big conference of neurosurgeons here in the US this summer in a bid to get a big whig neurosurgeon in the States on board, along with their large research hospital which would host this inglorious event.
Again, I say, “Good, Lord, have mercy” for they know not what they are doing!
However, do stay tuned, because I do love the idea of the spinal cord stimulator, when appropriate! Have seen it used (appropriately) in another TED talk. We’ll look at that next.