How Brains are Transplanted

“What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” ~ Robert Walton, from “Frankenstein”

Given half the chance, some doctors will transplant your brain—and if not yours, someone elses.

Brain transplants are not just in the realm of cheesy horror/sci-fi movies like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain” or “The Man Without a Body” about a mad scientist that keeps the severed head of seer Nostradamus alive in a jar. In the real world, real medical technology is being developed for head and brain transplants.

100 years of head transplants

As long ago as 1908, American physiologist Charles Guthrie surgically transplanted the head of a living canine onto the body of another creating an infamous two-headed dog. The transplanted dog head retained few of its brain functions. The dog died shortly thereafter.

His accomplishment was mostly met with revulsion and outrage and helped fuel record donations to the American Anti-vivisection Society.

Half a century later, Russian researcher Vladimir Demikhov also created a two-headed dog that maintained its cerebral functions. Demikhov moved the science of head transplants forward as his two-headed creation lived almost a week.

As the functions of the brain began to be more fully understood, researchers discovered that the brain cannot be deprived of oxygen for more than a matter of minutes without cellular damage and the increased probability that neurons will die. Therefore, the faster a detached head can be attached to a recipient body, the more likely the operation will be a success.  

Eerily like another famous science fiction movie, “Donovan’s Brain,” Demikhov successfully removed a canine brain from its skull and kept the brain alive and functioning for a period of time.

Not satisfied with that triumph, the Russian researcher forged ahead (no pun intended) and during 1964 implanted the living brain of one dog into another dog’s neck. Keeping the brain nourished with the other dog’s blood, he monitored the functionality of the transplanted organ with attached electrodes.

Finally, Demikhov reached dizzying heights in head transplants by successfully connected the head of a monkey to another. The transplanted, but paralyzed, head kept its consciousness and responded to light, sound and taps about its face.

In response to the criticism heaped upon his experiments, the Demikhov responded that humans should be next and transplanting human heads would be a natural next step. After all, he argued, if a person was dying from organ failure or an eventually fatal accident, would they not want the chance at continuing life even if that life was in a paralyzed body or a jar on a table?

Many editorials in newspapers across the world answered his question with a resounding “No.”

Enter Dr. Robert White

A soft-spoken, serious doctor, Robert White did not fit the TV version of a medical man. On the other hand, he didn’t look like a man trying to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Frankenstein either. He was a recognized pioneer in the field of spinal cord and brain cooling techniques that became standard therapeutic procedures for certain types of spinal injuries.

White, who died in September 2010, successfully transplanted the entire head of a monkey onto another monkey’s body. He perfected the technique and an entire series of head transplanted monkeys followed. Although each theoretically could have lived for many years, White elected to terminate each monkey instead.

What made these transplants truly successful—other than the potential longevity achieved—was that the monkey heads saw, thought, felt and tasted things. Because of their severed spinal cords, however, all the transplanted heads were paralyzed from the neck down.

The hurdle that must be overcome is the reintegration of the nerve bundle from the brain into the spine. All the thousands of nerves must be refused together and that must be accomplished in such a way that the system works correctly—like wiring the circuits of a gigantic circuit board.

Like those who came before him, White argued against detractors of his accomplishment by pointing out that the medical procedure can save lives from almost any fatal disease. Except for inoperable brain cancer, any other terminal illness can be overcome by transplanting the head of the afflicted individual.

Donor bodies—culled from those that suffered head injuries, aneurysms, or any other death that was head-related—can be utilized as ready hosts for newly transplanted heads.

“People are dying today who, if they had body transplants, in the spinal injury community would remain alive,” White once told a BBC interviewer.

Asked about the ethics of such transplant surgeries, White acknowledged that some had reservations, but added that as far as transplants are concerned, “At each stage—kidney, heart, liver and so forth—ethical considerations have been considered, especially with the heart, which was a major, major problem for many people and scientists.”

Experiments ‘wholly unethical’

Professor Stephen Rose, the director of Brain and Behavioral Research at the Open University, spoke for much of the rising opposition to such research by condemning it. He also stated, “This is medical technology run completely mad and out of all proportion to what’s needed”.

“It’s scientifically misleading, technically irrelevant and scientifically irrelevant, and apart from anything else a grotesque breach of any ethical consideration,” adds Rose.

Beyond the medical ethics involved, Rose also questions the identity of the new “person.” Would the head of the original individual on another’s former body actually, legally be considered the head’s identity?

“Your person is largely embodied, but not entirely, in your brain,” Rose explained. “I cannot see any medical grounds for doing this. I cannot see that scientifically you would actually be able to regenerate the nerves which could produce that sort of control. And I think that the experiments are the sort that are wholly unethical and inappropriate for any possible reason.”

Work is progressing using stem cells and other approaches to discover methods of regenerating spinal nerves. Rose said he supports that work wholeheartedly.

Research on spinal transplants has met with some success as long as several decades ago by a team of scientists at the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Embryology Research in Nogent-sur-Marne, near Paris, an agency of France’s National Center for Scientific Research.


“Frankenstein fears after head transplant” BBC News

“Brain Transplants,”  New York Times

Robert J. White bio

Robert J. White obituary

Video: “First brain transplant” – Robert J. White, Neurosurgeon Cleveland Medical Hospital Ohio