Some years ago I translated to Portuguese a nice piece by Ken Freedman telling “A Brief History of Disembodied Dog Heads”. It was a success, after all, it described the experiences of soviet Dr. S.S. Bryukhonenko with disembodied dog heads kept alive artificially. And with a film to prove the point. How could you not be intrigued and disturbed by this?
The film in question recently inspired a music video by Metallica with nothing less than zombies. And although it almost certainly involves a reenacted (and exaggerated) portrayal of the results achieved by Bryukhonenko, the soviets did achieve some success. That included the creation of two-headed dogs by Vladimir Demikhov.
“Why create two-headed dogs?”, you may ask. And you would be asking the same as a brilliant Cleveland neurosurgeon named Robert J. White. Responsible for many innovative surgery techniques, operating on what he estimates as more than 10,000 brains, White explored the limits of his area going well beyond dogs. Searching for an animal model closer to us, he operated on rhesus monkeys. He wants to make head transplants in humans a reality. Or, as he calls it, “total body transplant”.
Keep reading for an intriguing documentary interviewing White and presenting footage with his experiments with monkeys. And hear the man claiming that head (or total body) transplants are not only possible today, but that figures like Stephen Hawking could be the first to benefit from it.
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Motherboard – Dr. White’s Total Body Transplant – part 1 of 7
In the first episode we are introduced to Robert J. White in a Geneva, Ohio, McDonald’s. Surrounded by children and diplomas, he ponders on how the brain imbues what we are. Including our spirit. The documentary does not make it very clear, but White is a devout Catholic.
Motherboard – Dr. White’s Total Body Transplant – part 2 of 7
The good doctor tells of his first surgeries which involved removing even half of the brain from the patients suffering from severe brain tumors, for instance. And many survived. In dogs, people couldn’t even notice what half of the brain was removed.
Motherboard – Dr. White’s Total Body Transplant – part 3 of 7
Where we are reminded on how animal experimentation was essential to medical advances that saved millions of lives. Perhaps more than his head transplants, White is involved in more controversies due to his defense and use of animals in medical research. We also discover some of the innovative techniques pioneered by him. Those included cooling the brain to allow for it to survive longer periods without blood circulation. Keeping brains alive, we are getting to head transplants.
Motherboard – Dr. White’s Total Body Transplant – part 4 of 7
The soviet experiments, from disembodied heads to two-headed dogs. Also, isolated brains. White praises Demikhov but notes that dogs are not a very good animal model for humans. He wanted to try monkeys. As completely isolated brains are too complex to keep alive, he will work with full heads.
Motherboard – Dr. White’s Total Body Transplant – part 5 of 7
And the monkey experiments are conducted, with relative success. The monkey heads did waken from the procedure and react to the surroundings.
Motherboard – Dr. White’s Total Body Transplant – part 6 of 7
Finally, the actual footage of the disturbing experiments with monkeys. With some nice illustrations.
Motherboard –Dr. White’s Total Body Transplant – part 7 of 7
Robert White presents Stephen Hawking as a poster child for total body transplant. “His brain function, physiologically, could even improve”, he says. “The point is: we could do it”. And ends explaining how he has a reserved table at the local McDonald’s.
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It’s a nice documentary, which does not attempt to judge or portray White as Dr. Frankenstein for a change. No scary background music. You can find more details about White and his experiments in this nice piece by David Bennin published in 2000.
Head transplants, or “total body transplants”, are subject to much controversy. That’s just expected, given that it questions ethical and moral issues about who we are, or actually, who would we be if we were subjected to such procedure. Or, quite simply… head swapping! How could it not be controversial.
Interestingly, though, I found this documentary in a recent post by P.Z. Myers, notorious atheist activist, calling White a “mad scientist”. Not only that, Myers compared the pioneer neurosurgeon to a horror character from Lovecraft made famous in the Reanimator movies. “It’s hard to get more Herbert West than that”.
This outright rejection to the idea by a fellow secular humanist would be interesting in itself, but it’s even more interesting as White was a bioethical advisor to Pope John Paul II. Not that that means the Vatican endorses the idea of swapping heads around, it hasn’t manifested over the subject, but it clearly is not appalled by the idea to have White as an advisor. In Bioethics.
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As far as is known, no one has actually tried to perform a “total body transplant”, at least in people alive – White conducted experiments in cadavers – and with any chances of succeeding – who knows what medieval doctors may have tried. White’s experiments with Rhesus monkeys up to the 1980s were and still seem to be the cutting edge. Not only did he manage to keep the heads alive, capable of seeing, hearing, even smelling and tasting for prolonged periods. The body even breathed by itself.
In 2001 similar experiments were conducted with rats at the Jichi Medical School in Japan. In these experiments scientists grafted infant rat heads onto adult rats bodies, effectively creating two-headed rats, more akin to Demikhov’s dogs. In a sense, that’s going backwards. And even that was criticized.
In a BBC news item, professor Stephen Rose from Open University severely criticized White’s suggestion.
"This is medical technology run completely mad and out of all proportion to what’s needed. It’s entirely misleading to suggest that a head transplant or a brain transplant is actually really still connected in anything except in terms of blood stream to the body to which it has been transplanted. It’s not controlling or relating to that body in any other sort of way. It’s scientifically misleading, technically irrelevant and scientifically irrelevant, and apart from anything else a grotesque breach of any ethical consideration. It’s a mystification to call it either a head transplant or a brain transplant. All you’re doing is keeping a severed head alive in terms of the circulation from another animal. It’s not connected in any nervous sense."
Rose defends that “the way to help the quadriplegic community is to work on research to help spinal nerves regenerate”. That wouldn’t help people like Stephen Hawking, though.
Rose didn’t list all ethical considerations involved, and I don’t intend to list them all either. But to some questions: A full body would, even if the procedure succeeded, save one head. But it could also save multiple lives that need separated organs. Obviously, priority should be given to save as many lives as possible with the available resources. Not to mention that treating bodies as resources is also a delicate position. White himself recognizes that this would save perhaps only a few, “at most maybe 10,000 people; we’re not talking about a cure for cancer”. There simply isn’t that many people in real need of radical whole body transplants.
Nevertheless, as White is not ashamed to ask, who would deny Stephen Hawking the right to a new body? I probably wouldn’t, but then, I think it’s not that probable that the physicist would live much longer with such a radical and new procedure. I don’t think Hawking would ask for a new body either. The procedure won’t be developed without much trial and error, but there can’t be much trial and error when all errors will mean death and the waste of whole (or “total”) bodies. And the best you would expect at the moment would be heads attached to bodies they would not feel or control.
Overall, though, I do feel that the complete dismissal of the idea as outrageous or grotesque is somehow irrational. Is it mad science? At the moment, it’s indeed probably not worth the trouble, but it’s not madness. One day it will be possible to actually and effectively swap heads and bodies, and when that day comes I think there will be cases where the procedure would be justified.
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Total body transplants seem like too much for your head? Well, as Dr. White was swapping monkey heads, Hollywood explored… “The Thing with Two Heads”:
The touching adventure of a rich white man’s head attached to a black guy’s body. That’s madness.
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