NEURO: Head Transplants"
Sun, 29 Aug 1999 21:21:02 EDT

I'm not vouching for the accuracy of this . . . .

>From The Sunday Times, 9
August 29 1999 BRITAIN

Head transplants give paralysed new hope Jonathan Leake
Science Editor

A LEADING brain surgeon has unveiled plans to perform the first human head transplant. The operation, already carried out successfully on dogs and monkeys, would initially cost 800,000.

Among those who could benefit are quadriplegics with conditions similar to that of Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor paralysed after a fall from a horse. The operation may also appeal to rich people with terminal illnesses.

The technique for transplanting heads was proven in principle with small mammals in the early 1990s. However, it was abandoned when scientists realised that the extra time needed to reconnect larger human arteries and muscles would deprive the brain of oxygen and cause tissue damage.

Last week it was claimed that this obstacle has finally been overcome. Robert J White, an American neurosurgeon, said he had developed a blood-cooling system that meant a living head could be disconnected from its blood supply for up to an hour without ill-effect.

White and his team, based at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, claim they have already practised the techniques on corpses retained for medical research at the American hospital where he works.

The White machine cools the brain from 37C to 10C. "This slows the metabolism and allows plenty of time to reconnect a head to its new body. All we are waiting for now is the money and the patients," White said last week.

White has carried out more than 10,000 brain operations on humans. His work on monkeys, which started over 20 years ago, culminated in the full head transplants.

The animals survived for more than a week with no impairment of mental faculties before they were put down, for humane reasons.

Head or brain transplants have long been seen as the holy grail for neurosurgery. In theory, they offer the nearest anyone could get to immortality.

In reality, however, White's technique would initially have a more limited application. Despite many recent advances, surgeons still cannot reconnect or regrow severed spinal nerves. This means that, like the monkeys, anyone who underwent a head transplant would be paralysed from the neck down.

It also means that the first candidates for such surgery would probably be people, like Reeve, who had already been paralysed. Quadriplegics often die prematurely from multiple organ failure. Transplanting their head to a new body could, however, give them the chance of a normal lifespan.

White believes that, although the idea might shock the able-bodied, many quadriplegics would welcome it. "It would be hard to deny them that chance through squeamishness when we are already transplanting lungs, hearts and livers," he said.

Most of the subsequent demand for head transplants would, however, almost certainly come from a group presenting far greater ethical problems - elderly or dying millionaires with enough money to pay for the operation and the years of aftercare.

The operational procedure, described by White in a paper published last week, would involve two teams of surgeons. Deep incisions would be made around the necks to expose the six major blood vessels and the spine. The next step would be to cool the head by connecting it to White's new cerebral perfusion machine. Initially this would carry blood from the original body but, as the operation progressed, a second set of tubes from the machine would be hooked up to blood vessels of the recipient body.

Then, taps would switch off the head's blood supply from the original body and replace it with blood from the new body.

At this point the head would be detached, by severing the spinal cord, and then attached to the new body. Such procedures could mean halting the blood supply but the brain's low temperature would minimise the risk of damage. Then the blood vessels, muscles and skin could be sewn together using standard surgical techniques.

Reeve, who has set up a foundation to promote research into the causes of paralysis and potential cures, is understood to have taken a close interest in White's research.

White refused to reveal his future clients but was confident many would come forward. He said: "The Frankenstein legend, where a human being is constructed by sewing parts together, will become a reality early in the 21st century."