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If you’ve ever wondered whether a head transplant will one day be possible, the surprising answer is that it's already happened – over five decades ago – though not in humans, and with a few qualifications.
While working as a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Robert J. White became the first person to perform a successful head transplant, using rhesus monkeys in his experiments. The American neurosurgeon, who was also a bioethicist and a devout Catholic, was particularly interested in learning whether you could transplant consciousness, or, considered another way, save a soul by keeping it alive in another body.
In the 1960s, White spent years carrying out research on rhesus monkeys. In one notable experiment, he used hypothermic cold to keep an isolated monkey brain "alive" and still registering EEG signals – without a body. He went one step further in 1970 when he removed the head from one monkey and reattached it to the torso of another. Because the spinal cord had been severed, the monkey was paralyzed but very much alive, with all of its senses intact – looking around, eating, and even trying to bite Dr. White. The creature lived for nine days.
Despite the Frankenstein-esque (and arguably barbaric) nature of his experiments, which have been roundly criticized by animal rights activists and some biomedical ethicists, White wasn't transplanting monkey heads for the fun of it. Instead, he wanted to know whether a human head transplant would ever be possible. While working as a neurosurgeon in trauma hospitals, White had often wondered whether a desperately sick or injured patient would have had a chance to survive if only their brain could be transplanted into a healthy body.
In the late 1990s, a paralyzed man named Craig Vetovitz sought White’s help to become the first person to have his head transplanted onto a donor body, as his kidneys were failing and he was unlikely to receive a kidney transplant. White wanted to go ahead with the surgery, even practicing on cadavers and developing a surgery protocol, but wasn’t able to secure the funding or appropriate permissions to carry it out. White died in 2010 at age 84.
The pioneering and controversial Dr. White:
- White believed that he was doing God’s work by learning how to preserve the brain (and hence, the soul) without its body. White was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and even worked with Pope John Paul II to establish the Vatican’s Commission on Biomedical Ethics in 1981.
- During his extensive career, White carried out over 10,000 surgeries and authored more than 900 articles, earning honorary doctorates from around the world to go along with his degree from Harvard Medical School, bestowed cum laude in 1953. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work on using extreme cooling to keep brain cells alive in the event of a lack of blood flow.
- Prior to White's work, even stranger experiments had already been carried out on dogs in the Soviet Union, though none survived longer than a month. In the late 1950s, Vladimir Demikhov successfully grafted the upper torso of one dog onto the body of another, essentially creating a two-headed canine with one heart supporting two different brains.
- The Ethico-Legal Committee of the European Association of Neurosurgical Societies (EANS) has stated that it would be unethical to carry out a human head transplant. Beyond the extensive ethical quandaries, questions remain about whether participants would experience pain, especially neuropathic pain which is notoriously hard to pinpoint and treat.