In circles frequented by Mary Shelley and her husband Percy, galvanism was strangely enough, a popular topic of conversation. So immersed was Mary that her nightly dreams spawned the now classic book, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”.
Was this group of friends that also included Lord Byron actually of the mindset described and played out in the person of Victor Frankenstein? Did they aspire to reanimate dead or dying flesh? Or even go so far as to create a makeshift being out of parts and pieces of cadavers? Of course such a fantasy while grotesque, was inspiring enough to end up as a story of Gothic science fiction which still lives on today albeit in an unreal or unattainable sense, or so you may believe.
Dr Sergio Canavero, a bold neurosurgeon makes his case for transplantation of a human head. The good doctor believes the technology is in place to not only mix body and brain, but to reanimate such a creation.
Quote Online PR News:
Announcing plan for first head transplant in man
The June issue of Surgical Neurology International, the renowned open-access neurosurgical journal, to be released shortly, carries the executive project for the first head transplant in man, code-named HEAVEN/GEMINI (Head Anastomosis Venture with Cord Fusion). According to the anonymous reviewers, the article “opens a brand new field for contemporary medical science”.
The project is authored by Turin (Italy)’s neuroscientist and functional neurosurgeon Dr Sergio Canavero, who made the headlines in December 2008 for performing the first successful bifocal cortical stimulation for the vegetative state.
Dr Canavero is author of Central Pain Syndrome (Cambridge University Press, 2007, 2011) monograph and editor of Textbook of Therapeutic Cortical Stimulation (Nova Science, 2009).
Since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankestein in 1818, head transplantation has existed in the realm of science fiction, until US neurosurgeon Robert Joseph White (1926 – 2010) performed an operation to transplant the head of one monkey onto another’s body on March 14, 1970 at the Metrohealth Medical Centre in Cleveland, Ohio, in a 18-hour long surgery. Unfortunately, the technology to repair the severed spinal cord was unavailable and so the monkey could not regain motor independence. Controversy followed and strong opposition mounted from several quarters. However, Dr White maintained that human head transplantation could take place early in the XXI century.
According to Dr Canavero, the technical hurdles have now been cleared thanks to cell engineering. As described in his paper, the keystone to successful spinal cord linkage is the possibility to fuse the severed axons in the cord by exploiting the power of membrane fusogens/sealants. Agents exist that can reconstitute the membranes of a cut axon and animal data have accrued since 1999 that restoration of axonal function is possible. One such molecule is poly-ethylene glycol (PEG), a widely used molecule with many applications from industrial manufacturing to medicine, including as an excipient in many pharmaceutical products. Another is chitosan, a polysaccharide used in medicine and other fields.
HEAVEN capitalizes on a minimally traumatic cut of the spinal cord using an ultra-sharp blade (very different from what occurs in the setting of clinical spinal cord injury, where gross, extensive damage and scarring is observed) followed within minutes by chemofusion (GEMINI). The surgery is performed under conditions of deep hypothermia for maximal protection of the neural tissue. Moreover, and equally important, the motoneuronal pools contained in the cord grey matter remain largely untouched and can be engaged by spinal cord stimulation, a technique that has recently shown itself capable of restoring at least some motor control in spinal injured subjects.
The indications for HEAVEN would be far-reaching (including non-brain cancer), but, given the dearth of donors, a select group of gravely ill individuals would be the target. This would include for instance people with some kinds of muscular dystrophies, which prove eventually lethal and a source of major suffering. Even someone like UK physicist and mathematician S.Hawking could have benefited, as could have US actor Reeves, a tetraplegic.
The ethical dilemma behind HEAVEN does not rest with the supposed exploitation of an organ donor for the benefit a single person (the recipient), since the recipient’s own body would act as a donation unit itself. Instead, it is clear that HEAVEN would represent an effective life-extension strategy. Without proper regulation, a select aging few with adequate funds could secure the bodies of healthy young individuals on the black market, and have them transplanted by unscrupulous surgeons. The society needs to begin addressing the problem, while HEAVEN is on its way to be deployed in the clinical arena.
Dr Sergio Canavero
Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, Turin, Italy
As we can see by the article, in order to have such an endeavor accomplished, Dr. Canavero may have to go the route of Dr. Frankenstein. From what I’ve read, his ideas seem to lack popularity, even in the 21st century where most anything on the bizarre end of the scale is met with little shock and awe.
The fact is that this type of manipulation and experimentation is not new by any means. During wartime the Nazis did experiments on their human captors that would turn the stomach of the most hardened individual. Not to be outdone, the Russians did reanimation experiments in the 30s and 40s by means of an “artificial blood circulation system”. Below we see one of these disturbing experiments (warning, this is alleged to be real footage and is not for the faint of heart):
There has been similar experimentation done throughout the last 200 years or so and as technology has advanced, so too has success, as illustrated in this story regarding the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research:
Just as dogs preceded humans in making the first risky voyages into space, a new generation of canines has now made an equally path-breaking trip – from life to death and back again.
In a series of experiments, doctors at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh managed to plunge several dogs into a state of total, clinical death before bringing them back to the land of the living. The feat, the researchers say, points the way toward a time when human beings will make a similar trip, not as a matter of ghoulish curiosity but as a means of preserving life in the face of otherwise fatal injuries.
The method for making the trip is simple. The Safar Center team took the dogs, swiftly flushed their bodies of blood and replaced it with a relatively cool saline solution (approximately 45 to 50 degrees) laced with oxygen and glucose. The dogs quickly went into cardiac arrest, and with no demonstrable heartbeat or brain activity, clinically died.
There the dogs remained in what Patrick Kochanek, the director of the Safar Center, and his colleagues prefer to call a state of suspended animation. After three full hours, the team reversed their steps, withdrawing the saline solution, reintroducing the blood and thereby warming the dogs back to life. In a flourish worthy of Mary Shelley, they jump-started their patients’ hearts with a gentle electric shock. While a small minority of the dogs suffered permanent damage, most did not, awakening in full command of their faculties.
Of course, the experiments were conducted not to titillate fans of horror films but to save lives. Imagine a stabbing victim brought to the emergency room, his aorta ruptured, or a soldier mortally wounded, his organs ripped apart by shrapnel. Ordinarily, doctors cannot save such patients: they lose blood far more quickly than it can be replaced; moreover, the underlying trauma requires hours of painstaking repair. But imagine doctors buying time with the help of an infusion of an ice-cold solution, then parking their patients at death’s door while they repair and then revive them.
While humankind takes on the task of playing God more and more these days, we have to consider the consequences as well as address moral and ethical standards. Is there ever a point at which we go too far? Are we on course to develop something that today is no more than a joke to most?
I am speaking of course on the subject of zombies in the classical sense. None of these experiments can be considered zombie making in nature, as the subjects are all under complete control and in many cases brought back to a fully normal state.
We have to wonder if the idea of a zombie virus is not that far fetched anymore. While we can scoff at such a notion, the rabies virus is said to be a sort of zombie virus. Although it doesn’t affect humans in the same way as animals, I’m sure a tweak here and there and we’ll have living dead relatives looking to eat our brains before we know it, as explained in this quote from National Geographic:
Combine rabies with the ability of a flu virus to spread quickly through the air, and you might have the makings of a zombie apocalypse.
It is said that in Voodoo cultures, one need only know how to dissect a puffer fish which contains the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin. Handled correctly a powerful zombie powder can be made which is used to create the illusion of death.
The big threat these days comes in the form of an innocent sounding name. Bath Salts are said to cause people to act out in zombie like fashion, attacking and eating victims in an altered state of “soaring body temperature, psychotic outburst, paranoid delusions, violence, and suicidal thoughts”.
To sum up, before we step over the threshold of the unknown, maybe it’s more prudent that we take a step back and consider all the possible outcomes. We may not be laughing any more.
Sources for this article are as follows: