The best thing about being out in the world post-COVID is that I get to see my friends and colleagues. And one of the best things about that is that people love to be on the lookout for prompts that I can use in blog posts. I am so grateful to those who send me emails with the subject line: blog fodder. It’s awesome and appeals to my inner lazy person. I have outsourced my research to smarter people. Proof I am an excellent delegator.
So, I was particularly gratified when my great friend, Patty, informed me the other day that on her drive to our breakfast meet up, she heard on the radio that there had been incredible progress towards the world’s first brain transplant and that I simply must look into this for the blog.
I had heard about the amazing potential of brain implants to address paralysis, as well as other neurologic conditions, but a full brain transplant? Scenes from the movie, Young Frankenstein, immediately started playing inside my (original, not yet replaced) head while I heard Gene Wilder’s distinctive voice loudly exclaim:
From that fateful day when stinking bits of slime first crawled from the sea and shouted to the cold stars, “I am man” our greatest dread has always been the knowledge of our mortality. But tonight, we shall hurl the gauntlet of science into the frightful face of death itself. Tonight, we shall ascend into the heavens. We shall mock the earthquake. We shall command the thunders and penetrate into the very womb of impervious nature herself.
And then I started humming “Putting on the Ritz.”
Since we were ordering breakfast, I almost got to use the line, “Wait! Where are you going? I was going to make espresso!” If you are one of those people who has not seen this movie, you are seriously missing out. Run, don’t walk, to your Netflix account today.
Now, back to our story. Apparently there is a neurosurgeon named Professor Sergio Canavero. Dr. Canavero announced back in 2016 that he would likely be able to perform the first human head transplant in the UK within a year of that announcement. And to make matters even more exciting, a Russian dude named Valery Spiridinov has volunteered his head for the experiment. Mr. Spiridinov has a debilitating disease that is killing his body but not his mind, which is in great shape and ready to live on in another person’s form. Allegedly, Dr. Canavero has successfully performed a similar head transplant surgery on a monkey. We have not yet heard from the monkey whether this was deemed a success. Ultimately, Mr. Spiridinov changed his…mind…and backed out of being the procedural guinea pig. I can’t imagine why.
This whole story just blows my, pardon the expression, mind.
First of all, Professor Canavero’s work started out not as a brain transplant, but a head transplant, because separating the brain from the head was initially determined to be too difficult. OK. I’m just going to let that one sit there.
Professor Canavero published a paper in 2022 in the academic journal entitled Surgical Neurology International, showing how his thinking had progressed. It should be entirely possible, he surmised, to transfer the brain and dural sac, into a younger, presumably hotter, person’s skull. Yes, I am embellishing by injecting the “hotness” quotient into the equation, but seriously, why accept moving to a body that wouldn’t get whistled at when walking by a construction site? You gotta have goals.
Secondly, for some reason Dr Canavero believes that the UK is the most likely place to accept and support this work. I have been to the UK many times, and I cannot imagine that the NHS is going to pay for this. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s in the name of research, not health insurance, but perhaps this is just another case of the people in the UK being exceedingly polite to your face (Sure, go for it, we’ll help!) and then later, when talking amongst themselves, saying, “Holy crumpets, was that guy serious?” Or maybe the good doctor did not realize he was chatting with members of Monty Python? Tis but a scratch! It’s just a flesh wound!
Thirdly, there is a company working with Professor Canavero to develop a virtual reality product to “prevent the occurrence of unexpected psychological reactions.” Unexpected psychological reactions? I think that any psychological reaction you or I could imagine in our wildest dreams would be entirely expected. What reaction would be unexpected after a brain transplant? Your surprise that your head accidentally ended up on the body of a monkey? That you could now play the violin? I have taxed the limits of my wild imagination and I cannot think of a single thing one would expect from a surgery like this. Perhaps my best advice on this topic is: if your head is transplanted to a much shorter person’s body, you, like me, may have a lifetime of unexpected struggling to reach things in the kitchen.
Wait?! Did I hear a horse whinnying? Sorry, another gratuitous Young Frankenstein reference. Let’s keep going.
Apparently there is also a newly invented special knife, developed by Professor Farid Amirouche at the University of Illinois, that will work perfectly for the procedure by enabling a clean cut of the spinal cord, allowing for easier reattachment to the new body. I have to get my hands on this knife, because I have a really tough time cutting mangoes and it’s the season.
I mean, sure, it would be amazing if it was actually possible to perform a safe brain transplantation. We could dispense with all the pseudo-scientific life extending medicine currently keeping Silicon Valley busy and go straight to the main event. I can think of a few billionaires who would undoubtedly be the first in line to give it a go. Our marketplace-loving tech economy would be booming! I can imagine not just a bunch of dying older people who want to preserve their life spans while rapidly achieving flatter stomachs, but perhaps also a whole bunch of good-looking dumb people who would want system upgrades. The total addressable market (TAM) is potentially so large it’s almost impossible to measure. The revenue potential from the body-to-brain matching algorithm alone boggles the…mind. I will call this company… OKstupid. God, I hope you get that joke. I am so amused.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck’s?
Igor: [pause, then] No.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?
Igor: Then you won’t be angry?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.
Igor: Abby someone.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby someone. Abby who?
Igor: Abby… Normal.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby Normal?
Igor: I’m almost sure that was the name.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [chuckles, then] Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA? [grabs Igor and starts throttling him]
And as for upgrades, Professor Canavero adds, “It is worth mentioning how the entire surgery might be adapted so that the eyes are also transplanted without damaging the neurovascular bundle. However, the eyes also degenerate with age.” This raises the age-old question, “Would I rather look awesome and need to wear reading glasses or see perfectly and look like…myself?” I think the answer to this question is pretty darn clear. Who needs great eyesight if you know you look amazing? Nobody. You could remove all those wall-space-wasting mirrors in your home and have the confidence of Beyonce. On her, glasses would look great.
There have been some pretty incredible developments in organ preservation, reanimation of nerves and transplant surgeries. My husband, being the practical person that he is, was concerned about what happens during surgery given the need for, shall we say, simultaneous effort. In a heart transplant procedure, surgeons can keep the receiving body alive while waiting for its new organ by using a cardiovascular bypass machine. Do we need to wait until a brain bypass machine is invented for this surgery to be successfully performed, or can today’s high-powered marijuana serve the same purpose? Inquiring…minds… need to know.
I’m curious what some of my neurosurgeon friends think about all this. Please do weigh in below in the comments section.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Class… is… dismissed.