Head transplants were once considered solely the domain of horror movies like Frankenstein but new technology and a better understanding of biology have increasingly made the prospect of a head transplant less remote.
In fact, a Chinese doctor has been surgically transplanting the heads of mice already.
Surgeon Xiaoping Ren has performed almost 1,000 head transplants on mice since 2013, and has had more success than anyone else with the surgery, according to media reports. The mice, sometimes with mismatched fur colors, have lived for up to a day after the surgical procedures.
Ren is now planing his technique on monkeys, “hoping to create the first head-transplanted primate that can live and breathe on its own, at least for a little while.”
The procedure is so ethically controversial that many scientists doubt it will ever be allowed in the U.S., but such ethical concerns are unimportant to China, who values world-leading accomplishments over ethics concerns.
Ren left his job at the University of Cincinnati for China in order to conduct his research, which is strictly banned in the United States.
New York University medical ethics professor Arthur Caplan said that “the whole idea is ridiculous.”
Yet head transplantation could open up life-changing possibilities for people with severe disabilities or who have suffered extreme trauma. It could allow paralyzed or quadriplegic patients to regain all of their physical movement for instance.
As for details of his work, Ren recalls that when he took a ventilator off the tiny creature’s throat, the head began breathing with its new body. An hour later, the body twitched, and, a few hours later the mouse opened its eyes.
Despite the mind-blowing possibilities, a human head transplant would be the most complex surgery ever attempted. It is likely decades away but preliminary research, along with improved technology, is advancing the possibility faster than we imagine.