By Leyla Urmanova
September 7, 2022
UPDATED 12:00 PM EST
BRAIN TRANSPLANTS: DO THEY HAVE A FUTURE?
[Photo credit: PBS]
“The brain is the organ of destiny. It holds within its humming mechanism secrets that will determine the human race.” — Wilder Penfield. But with such a complex organ, could its transplantation ever be achieved?
Over the years, human head transplantation has always been out of the question. With the enormous risks that come with it, the procedure is viewed as impossible – and closer to the world of science fiction than to modern medical practice. However, scientists and medical professionals are now beginning to wonder about the feasibility of this surgical procedure and whether it can be practiced in a regular hospital setting.
To determine the possibility of this Frankenstein procedure, we must dive into its history. Unbeknownst to many, brain transplants extend as far back as the late 1900s. Dr. Robert White, a renowned neurosurgeon in America, performed the first successful mammalian brain transplant in 1970. The operation involved the transplantation of a rhesus monkey's head onto the body of a headless one. In its eight-day lifespan, the primate was unable to physically move its new body, but it had access to all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and perception/motor function (in only its face). However, despite the impressive medical advancement, after receiving heavy criticism from the public and losing the monkey to immune rejection, Dr. White ceased his experimentation on brain transplants shortly after. Consequently, the halt in brain transplant procedures resulted in the stagnation of its overall scientific advancement.
Even in modern society, a multitude of challenges exist with carrying out this procedure safely and efficiently - one of the main ones being body donor selection. The qualifications for a recipient include a young person suffering from a terminal disease that leaves the brain unaffected. As for the human donor, he/she would need to be brain-dead and match the immunotype and organ sizes of the recipient. After overcoming the obstacles surrounding body donor selection, a series of new ones await: organizing a multidisciplinary team of surgeons, maneuvering around essential nerves, conducting a precise spinal cord reattachment, and preparing for postoperative complications.
Even if the surgical procedure proves to be a success, a variety of other issues can still arise. Brain transplants may raise controversy by crossing existing ethical boundaries in medicine, and they can cost vital organs that could be utilized for other transplants. The operation may also strain existing resources such as medical personnel and equipment.
Therefore, by exploring the opportunities and limitations presented in brain transplants, we can determine if the procedure will play a potential role in the future. Since the world of scientific research has been silent on the topic, the public remains skeptical of its advancement. Even so, the results revealed by existing studies show promise in the feasibility of human brain transplants and can help promote meaningful scientific discussions on the topic. Hence, although human head transplantation may prove to be a worthwhile endeavor, support from the rest of the scientific world is needed in order to know for sure.
Egnor, Michael. “Are Human Brain Transplants Even Possible?” Mind Matters, 16 Mar. 2021, https://mindmatters.ai/2021/03/are-human-brain-transplants-even-possible/.
Gkasdaris, Grigorios, and Theodossios Birbilis. “First Human Head Transplantation: Surgically Challenging, Ethically Controversial and Historically Tempting – an Experimental Endeavor or a Scientific Landmark?” Maedica, TARUS MEDIA, Mar. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6511668/.
M.A., Kelly Engebretson '99. “The Seminal and Sometimes Weird Science of Dr. Robert White - Newsroom: University of St. Thomas.” Newsroom | University of St. Thomas, 14 July 2021, https://news.stthomas.edu/publication-article/the-seminal-and-sometimes-weird-science-of-dr-robert-white/.