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What is a Head Transplant?

By April S. Kenyon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A head transplant is a procedure in which the head of a subject is severed and placed upon another body. It should not be confused with a brain transplant, a hypothetical procedure in which a brain is transferred from the skull of one individual to another. As of the first part of the 21st century, this form of surgical grafting has never been performed on humans. Head transplants in animals have, to some degree, been successful.

The first attempted head transplant in animals was performed in May 1908 by Charles Guthrie of the United States. Guthrie grafted the head of a puppy onto the side of a full grown adult dog’s neck. The arteries in the neck and head of the puppy were grafted to those of the adult dog so that blood successfully flowed through both heads. While some movements and reflexes of the second head were recorded, too much time had elapsed between decapitation of the head and restored circulation for the brain of the second head to function properly.

Other, more successful, head transplants were performed on animals in the years to follow. In the early part of the 1950s, Vladimir Demikhov of the Soviet Union developed a method to reduce the amount of time the severed head was deprived of oxygen through the use of “blood vessel sewing machines.” Experiments that followed included both a head transplant of a dog by scientists in China in 1959, and a highly controversial head transplant of a monkey performed in 1963 by a group of researchers in Cleveland, Ohio. This head transplant was somewhat successful in that the monkey maintained its senses of smell, taste, hearing, and sight. Further head transplants involving rats have also occurred in Japan.

The transplant of a human head would require highly advanced technology that would include cooling the brain of the secondary head to the point that all neurological activity ceases. This would be necessary in order to prevent the death of neurons in the brain. Technological advancements have not yet made it possible to successfully graft a detached spinal cord. Thus, the subject of a head transplant would not have use of the limbs of the body and would be quadriplegic. It has been proposed that this surgical procedure could be beneficial to individuals who are suffering from multiple organ failures and are already quadriplegic, or would prefer to live a life without the use of limbs.

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Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Nov 13, 2014

I'd always heard that a brain or head transplant would be nearly impossible because the spinal cord was so complicated. I know modern surgeons can reattach veins and arteries and even tiny nerves these days, but it would take too long to reattach every single nerve bundled inside the spinal cord. It would almost make more sense to develop a robot body that could respond to a transplanted head's electrical impulses.

I'd also have to wonder about the eligibility process of a head or brain transplant. Would it be limited to people who have extraordinary skills, like a Stephen Hawking or a Bill Gates? Death is a natural stage of life, and I don't want to see people spend money trying to cheat it by having a series of head transplants.

By Ruggercat68 — On Nov 12, 2014

I don't know how I feel about head transplants from a moral or ethical point of view. I can appreciate the opportunity for a person with a healthy brain to be taken out of a physically damaged body, but how can a surgeon ask another family to donate an entire body to the process? Their loved one would still be walking around, but with someone else's head attached. I think that would be too much for most families to handle.

I'd also have to wonder how a suitable donor body would be selected. Could the person seeking a head transplant ask for specific body or ethnic or gender types, for instance? I'd hate to think of a world where a wealthy older person could have his head transplanted onto the body of an 18 year old by request.

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