Tuesday 3 March 2015

Head transplants

Please allow me to introduce the opening scene of a science fiction film to you.  If you don’t like science fiction, just pretend it’s another a formulaic Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl rom-com or a Daniel Craig 007 action flick.  Whatever floats your boat, just stay with me here.  This is important.
We fade in on a top-secret laboratory, beakers bubbling, computers beeping, screens displaying complex mathematical formulae.  A mysterious set of feet walk across the screen toward what must be a refrigeration unit.  The door opens, and dry ice fog quickly streams out and dissipates eerily.  Our mystery man picks up a small box and walks to a waiting table.  He opens the box to reveal . . . Cue dramatic music . . . a human head.  The camera zooms in on the box, where a sticker says “LIVE HUMAN—FOR EXPERIMENTATION ONLY.” 
Live human head? What? 
The mystery man picks up the head and turns to reveal an awaiting headless body covered in medical gadgets lying on an operating table.  The head is placed on the body.  A team of white-robed doctors descends with scalpels.  The music peaks . . .
It sounds completely ridiculous, something straight out of Hollywood, right?  Well, not exactly.  If a doctor from Italy is to believed, science fiction may soon become science fact.

Want to read the rest?  Well then unfortunately you need to head over (har dee har har) to The Daily Beast because they own me now or something.

I'm not sure if I should be shamelessly promoting my TDB articles here or not.  I still have yet to decide if I'll continue doing it.  I'd appreciate your thoughts, not only on the head transplant (that phrase just looks weirder and weirder every time I type it), but on putting teasers for my TDB articles here.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I have no intention of giving up this blog, or reducing or otherwise diluting the content in any way.  My first responsibility (after my family and my job, of course) is maintaining a repository for my stories, which was the whole reason I started this stupid blog in the first place.  I never expected anyone to actually read it, I just wanted to be able to remember this stuff.  I have no doubt that the idiocy around me will continue, so the weekly updates should as well.


  1. Personally, I think you should continue to do blog posts as usual, but maybe promote your TDB articles at the end of each post, as a PS or something. Just my thoughts :)

    1. That indeed would be best, but would require double work for Doc. I'd rather see fewer posts done in leisure and with passion than "regular" amount of posts from indirect pressure.

  2. Depends. Are you going to continue to do blog posts regularly or is a lot of your free time going into TDB?

    If you're doing blog posts just as frequently, then I agree with a PS at the bottom (just be careful about burning yourself out). If you're focusing more on TDB, then I think a preview in your blog in lieu of a blog post like this one is nice.

    Now that writing is a job, it's ok to put your personal stuff on the back burner. I'd actually recommend it, otherwise your leisure will become "just one more thing" you have to do that day and you'll stop enjoying it.

  3. Would be sorry to see you give up your blog Doc' but always happy to be pointed to something you have written.

    Head transplant is interesting but I do wonder: Where do the pristine bodies come from? I understand that you can scrape some undamaged organs from a car-crash victim but a body-donor must have died of something that didn't injure the body or neck in order to make this work. I realise some people die solely of head/brain injuries, suffocation etc. but would that be enough to have any chance of an immune-system match? I suspect for whole-body transplants, transgender, possibly trans-racial and those beyond around +- 20% in age would also be out of the question so the pool is going to be pretty small here. I can't see this will ever be a practical solution, although if there was a whole-world network looking for matches then a pristine body is comparatively easy to keep alive until the recipient can reach it (compared, say, to the heart of someone otherwise torn to pieces in a car crash).

    The ethical question is a weird thing but I reckon if the technology is there then it will not be held up by ethics for more than a generation or two. There are plenty of people in the world who would consider it simply "wrong" to undertake any organ transplant but in countries where it happens most people see the benefit and kids grow up considering it to be the natural way of things.

    The same will apply to all life-saving technologies: Once you or someone you love needs a pig's heart or a whole-body transplant then suddenly the ethical considerations become less important to you. This means that once it can be done well then eventually somebody, somewhere, will have it done. After that, people will grow up knowing it is a possibility and soon they will no longer be shocked by it.

    Personally, I would not like to say whether it is ethically right or not until I was in the position of needing one (which I obviously hope I never will) but I am sure it will happen within a generation of becoming realistically viable and will become generally ethically acceptable within a generation of that.

    1. "Personally, I would not like to say whether it is ethically right or not until I was in the position of needing one (which I obviously hope I never will)..."

      But this brings up the further interesting point of 'need.' I, like most people, don't want to die, ever, but statistically my chances of being the first person to be immortal are pretty slim. I'm 60 now, and would gleefully start scouting my replacement body if the technology was available to transplant my brain into 25ish year-old.

    2. I had not really considered the prospect of this as an anti-aging measure.

      Head transplant is perhaps a little different to "brain transplant" in that you would still have 60-year old eyes and ears etc.

      There is also the issue of an aging brain - certainly some people remain mentally acute past their century but equally a fair proportion of those with sound bodies are beginning to fade mentally before then.

      I'm not sure whether the ethics of body transplants into a younger body is significantly different to transplants into a healthier body but there are certainly additional issues to consider.

      Very interesting thought.

      Statistically, of course, the chances of dying are only about 95% because only 95% of those people who have ever been born have ever died! Naturally, that only goes to prove that you must never believe the statistics!

  4. It sounds funny to me that we should talk about head transplant rather than body transplant. I mean, we talk about heart transplant when someone receives a heart, right? Here it's not someone receiving a head, but rather someone receiving a body. Hmm.

  5. as for the cross connection - I think a link on the blog page will be sufficient, and to be fully honest, I have been feeling a bit starved for stupidity to comment on these past couple weeks.

    as for the head transplant, perhaps the same technology could be used for, say, reconnecting a severed spinal cord, which could give an accident victim a chance to be able to walk again. - essentially transplanting the head onto its OWN body.

    1. I'm not sure if you are serious here Ken, but did you read the comments on the DTB pages? I didn't dare start commenting there in case I wasted my whole week! (xkcd.com/386/).

      There was an interesting item on TV recently about using nerve cells from the nose (which can regenerate) to bridge spinal cord damage. It's obviously a long way from a cure but it's an interesting development if it can be repeated. (www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-29645760)

    2. I do recall that article. I believe my comment on the development was "but now his feet smell"

      and I was serious only to the extent that I expect this to take another 50-100 years to go from pie in the sky concept to actually being able to get a clean enough cut to "butt splice" nerve cells.

  6. I'm a big fan of your writing but do not follow TDB at all, so I would definitely appreciate it if you just gave us blog readers a heads-up when you post new TDB pieces.

    That being said, I must agree with another anonymous poster that your editor needs to up his/her game. Today's cases in point (based on one read-through): "we would have try it using small animals," which should be "we would have TO try it using small animals" (emphasis added); "it may be impossible to say why something is wrong, but can be easy to see that it ISN'T," which I believe you meant as "it may be impossible to say why something is wrong, but can be easy to see that it IS" (emphasis added).

    Also, I must sadly disagree with your point in that last quote. When a person cannot or will not even attempt to identify and justify an ethical position, s/he maintains every right to believe in that position, and to feel a certain way. But I do not believe s/he earns any right to claim that the position is absolutely true, as your phrasing seems to. Whether the person is Jahi McMath's family, a professional ethicist, or a brilliant surgeon, they ought to recognize and respect the intellectual rigor and thoughtfulness that must accompany moral assertions.

    I found this particularly jarring in contrast with your usual well-reasoned, thoroughly supported, highly analytical, and logically precise arguments. I very much enjoy reading your takes on socially and ethically controversial topics (actually, I wish you would write more about those), but I hope to see better developed discussions on those in the future.

    1. This article was admittedly rushed. I didn't feel that it was complete, but I submitted it anyway.

      I understand your point, but as I said ethics are a funny thing. There aren't specific guidelines to tell us WHY something is or isn't right. That was my point, which I failed to articulate well enough.

    2. I'm too curious to not ask, but please feel free to not answer: in your opinion, then, what is the "clear ethical danger" with human cloning, that would be -- if I read you correctly -- applicable to full-body transplants?

    3. have you watched "The Island?"

    4. Yes, I have. It was many years ago, so my memory of it is a bit vague, but I seem to recall that it was essentially a dystopian tale that engaged only minimally with the social and ethical issues it raised. I don't think (but please correct me if I'm wrong) that film attributed any problems to cloning that couldn't be more accurately traced back to critiques of corruption and systemic healthcare.

    5. My personal opinion, there just isn't a good reason to ever clone someone.

      Cloning so you have a spare set of organs on hand, is wrong for obvious reasons.

      Cloning to replace a dead loved one, interferes with the surviving person's ability to move on and opens up a scary implication that people are indeed as replaceable as pet hamsters.

      Instead of focusing on why something's wrong, let's focus on why it would be right to do it. If you can't think of a good reason, it probably shouldn't be done.

    6. As I understand them, the main objectives of human cloning these days are therapy (e.g., growing human organs for medical purposes) and reproduction (presumably when all other options have failed). If you don't mind my asking, what are the obvious reasons why cloning human organs is wrong?

    7. Growing human organs from say stem cells in a lab is fine. But that's not really cloning.

      Cloning a full living sentient human so you can have their organs is murder, assuming you need something other than a kidney. Even then, consent and body autonomy is presumably absent as this clone will have no choice in the matter. It also has the potential to create a class of people that have no rights to speak of since they are "just" clones, and civil rights movements can tell us why that's a bad idea.

    8. I don't think there is serious dispute about the wrongness of cloning human beings just to murder them for spare parts. But I respectfully disagree that cloning human organs is "not really cloning" in comparison. Actually, it seems to be one of the primary aspects -- if not THE primary aspect -- of the human cloning discussion, at least among the relevant regulatory and academic entities.

      Of course, such relatively mundane applications don't have the dramatic appeal of those human chop-shop scenarios that have become the poster children of opposition to human cloning. But they are much more realistic and pertinent to ongoing social and policy debates. In a serious, reasonable conversation about human cloning, I don't believe that parades of horribles (see, e.g., The Island) are more worthwhile topics than therapeutic cloning.

    9. I didn't word that very clearly, my bad. Organ and tissue cloning is normally referred to as therapeutic or organ cloning. Human cloning typically refers to cloning the entire human. So, cloning organs (while technically cloning a part of a human, yes) isn't really what I'm talking about when I say human cloning.

      But yes, I do agree with you. Growing or cloning organs is a worthwhile pursuit. I think the biggest hangups the opposition has is that they don't fully understand what stems cells are and where they come from.

  7. Here's a creepy, evil, unethical option: The "head" person, a few years before surgery is either cloned, or simply produces a child of the same sex. When that child is big enough to support the head, it becomes the body donor, producing an adult head on a child's body. Perhaps the close genetics would reduce rejection, especially with a clone. Clone or not, could some kind of in-vitro procedure be developed to either select an embryo likely to be compatible with the head? Or could genetic modification be used to reduce rejection?

    I suppose something would be needed to induce growth in the child-body.

    Like I said, evil. Maybe Putin would do it, and kill anyone who made fun of his baby hands.

  8. And to think....we knew you when......

    Very happy for you. You deserve this.


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