Back in 2009, Motherboard met up with Dr. Robert White, the neurosurgeon behind the infamous “monkey head transplant” experiment of the 1970s. In what turned out to be his last ever interview, White discussed the historical interest in brain and head transplantation and his contributions to neuroscience. White died in 2010, but interest in his trademark experiment has survived him and brought stomach-churning bioethical questions to the forefront.
Many, including us, have referred to White’s surgical undertaking as a head transplant. However, in countless interviews, he reiterated that a more apt label would be “full body transplant.” After all, White, an observant Catholic and member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, believed that the brain was the anatomical seat of the soul. In transferring the entire head, surgeons transfer the essence of an organism – the “living principle.” The donor body was a mere receptacle, a mechanism through which the person could be kept alive.
The trouble is that body transplants by definition require decapitation and decapitation means severing the spinal cord. While recent research has demonstrated that it is possible to reestablish connectivity in rats whose spinal cords have been cleaved, that sort of procedure has only been undertaken within single rats. It has not involved attaching the head of one organism to the body of another. This necessary surgical injury means that any recipients of a body transplant will be quadriplegic.
Despite the physiological obstacles, White always dreamt of taking these ideas to the next level: the human-body transplant. He hoped it would offer an alternative to death for individuals suffering from multiple organ failure and other terminal conditions.
It’s an ethically explosive subject. While your initial reaction might be pure revulsion, think of some of the deeper considerations: how would this transplant affect someone’s identity? How do you justify using an entire body to save just one person when the organs within that body could save several? Should such a surgery be denied to someone who needs it based on visceral disgust alone? Not to mention that pursuing such a goal would invariably involve even more problematic experimentation on primates, a morally-knotted issue we've been wrestling with for years.
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero recently raised the specter of White’s dreams when he proposed last month in Surgical Neurology International that the technology now exists for human “cephalic exchange.” He posits that the several groups of inorganic polymers called polyethylene glycol, or PEG, are “able to immediately reconstitute (fuse/repair) cell membranes damaged by mechanical injury.” In laymen’s terms, PEG can help stitch the severed spinal cords together, but only if the cuts are clean.
Even if it is theoretically possible, the proposed operation does not come cheap. Your wallet will take a hit, or more likely implode, to the tune of thirteen million dollars.
Jerry Silver, a colleague of White’s and the neurosurgeon behind the rat spinal cord experiment, objects to the entire notion of a human head/body transplant. “It’s complete fantasy,” he said in an interview with CBS News. Reminiscing about the psychic torture that he believes White’s original monkey patient suffered, he added, “I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety.” He dismissed Canavero’s theory as “bad science.” Given how controversial the monkey experiment itself was, it’s highly likely that Silver is one of many.
White, a man not known for his humility, once reportedly said to PETA President Ingrid Newkirkthat it is completely unacceptable to impose limits on scientific inquiry. And perhaps, even more so than the tragic hybrid monkey itself, that is his legacy: Unabashedly shattering disquieting scientific barriers so that issues like human head transplantation are something that will haunt our nightmares and ethical debates for quite some time.