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The pros and cons of a head transplant

Hart Attacks: I have my doubts about whether or not this old brain can do a new body justice

As the New Year kicks off, I have been giving some thought to getting my name on the head transplant waiting list — I just have to decide whether I want to be a donor or a recipient.

Yes, that’s the new boundary that medical technology dares to be pushing as an Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero late last year claims he and an international team of specialists have the skill and capability to surgically lob the head off one body and carefully attach it to a different headless body.

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The lead candidate in this story, to have his healthy head attached to a new healthy body, is a 31-year-old Russian computer scientist — just a kid — who has a “devastating muscle-wasting disease that has left his body compressed like an accordion.”

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if this guy who is imprisoned by a faulty body could be given a fully mobile life, to use his skills and talents and mobility to enjoy all that life has to offer. On the down side, the healthy recipient body for this new head has to be donated by someone who is mortally injured in an accident.

The theory certainly has some merits, but it opens way more than just a simple can of moral and ethical worms. First, there is the technical issue of whether it is even possible. Other surgeons and bioethicists say in polite terms a head transplant is just fiction. Doctors so far have never succeeded in rewiring a human spinal cord. Canavero may have some tricks up his scrubs no one knows about, but you have to wonder.

And critics also question, what happens if it only sort of works. What if there is a big “oops” moment and the procedure results in a severely mentally disabled brain on a body that doesn’t move? Then what do you do with this computer scientist who is worse off than he was before? Throw him out with the medical waste?

And Canavero talks about the bigger picture potential of a head transplant — cloning and living forever. So you collect a DNA sample from Lee Hart, use that to create a human clone, grow the clone out to say a physically healthy 20-year-old body, but you don’t activate it. It is just a body in cold storage. So Lee Hart gets to be 65-years-old, the original body is showing some wear and tear, so he decides it is time for a make over. Into the operating room, lob off the 65-year-old head full of wisdom and knowledge, attach it to the body of the 20-year-old clone, attach the jumper cables to the new body and voila, Lee Hart is good for another 50 year run.

Again it is an amazing theory, but you really have to wonder will it ever be possible? Should it be?

So back to my original decision. Aside from the cloning option, which is likely a really long ways off, so if I go forward with this head transplant today, do we end up with my head and brain on a new body, or does the John Doe recipient end up with an ugly old head and an often troubled brain, bordering on crazy some days? Do I want to impose my kind of thinking on a healthy human form? Like this morning — I got really angry because the toaster didn’t pop, so I started planning revenge against Walmart and Sunbeam. Do I really want a seemingly innocent body carrying out these acts of aggression? Does society really want that perpetuated?

I meet a friend down the road. “Hey, great to see you Bob. All is good. Going in for my third body transplant next week. My brain is actually 180 years old. I still haven’t figured out how to properly use this 100-year-old smart phone yet but I’m sure that will come… Oh, what do you mean no one uses smart phones anymore?”

Stuff like that. I have enough trouble pretending I can keep up with technology and trends today. Do I really think this old head is going to be any smarter 100 years from now?

The cold hard reality is that I should just stick with what I got. As it is, I can’t watch any TV, music, or movie award shows — I have no idea who these people are. It takes a lot of work now to pretend to keep up with technology. And I like to get to bed by 10 p.m. I don’t think that’s fair to a young healthy body.

And if by some fantastic medical development I did keep some version of this “unit” running for another 100 to 200 years, do I really want to still be writing about the role of copper in wheat in 2080, the potential of carbon credits in 2100, a livestock traceability system that is just about there in 2110, and a brand new 2125 idea to create something called the Canadian Wheat Board. Been there, done all that. There can be some things worse that death.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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