Re:Head transplantation done.

S.J. Van Sickle (
Tue, 4 Nov 1997 14:29:24 +0000

Also found on the 'net. Did the Times refer to the Ukraine?

December 21, 1996


Getting tired of your body? Why not try a new one.

Sunday Telegraph

"The Holy Father has never voiced any objection. As far as I
know, there isn't a problem with the operation from a theological or
an ethical point of view."

Dr. Robert White, professor of neurosurgery at the Case University in
Cleveland, Ohio, speaks with authority, both on surgery and on the

A frequent visitor to the Vatican, White is a member of the
Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He helped to set up the John Paul II
committee on medical ethics.

So it is a surprise to discover "the operation" White refers to is
the removal of one person's head and its surgical attachment to
someone else's body.

The most common reaction to the idea of a head transplant is not=
merely a question of 'How could anyone do that?' but 'Why would any
sane person want to?

"That's a very uninformed reactions," says White, a sprightly
70-year-old. "We really have to grow up -- and we will. There was a very similar
reaction when organ transplants first became possible nearly 40 years

"And I have no doubt that within the next 50 years head transplants
will be as common as kidney transplants are today."

White is not joking. In fact, he believes that he could perform the
operation successfully now.

It is more than 20 years since he transplanted the head of one
monkey on to the body of another.

"The monkey could see. His eyes followed you round the room.
He could eat, and if you were stupid enough to put your finger
in his mouth, he would have bitten it off."

Unfortunately, the monkey could not move. He was paralysed from the
neck down.

"How to connect up the spinal cord to the new head is a difficulty I
haven't tried to solve. It's an immensely complex problem. But it will
be solved, in my view, and before too long."

You might think that in the absence of knowing how to "connect up the
spinal cord," head transplants would be of little use. According to
White, you'd be profoundly wrong.

"When I was working on transplanting the heads of monkeys in the
Seventies, my interests were those of pure research: it was the
only way
to study important aspects of brain-functioning and chemistry.

"For instance, I discovered the enormous benefits to the brain of
temperature reduction. At normal temperature your brain would die in
about three minutes if starved of oxygen. But at 15 C, I could shut
off oxygen and blood for half an hour and there would be no adverse

Understandably, animal rights activists are not fond of White. He
faced death threats and needed FBI protection.

"I do not accept any criticism from those people. They have behaved
disgracefully to me and my family. I cannot accept that animals are
comparable to people."

You can recognize that point, yet still feel uneasy when looking at
the footage of the transplanted monkey's head. The information White
gained from that experiment was clearly interesting but hardly
significant enough, in terms of the possible benefit to humans, to
show that yuk is not the appropriate response to it.

But White insists the operations "have real life-saving potential."

White believes that "total body transplantation," as he prefers to
call it, could help quadraplegics enormously. "They die from multiple
organ failure. They are not thought to be suitable targets for organ
donation. If we could give them a new body, then they could live much

Already, people have put their names down for White's operation, in
the hope that some day soon, he will be allowed to perform it.

Craig Vetovitz, left paralysed from the neck down by a diving
accident, would like to be the first. Vetovitz stresses he is "well aware of the
risks. But if it can promote and accelerate this type of research . .
I'd be prepared to do it."

While Vetovitz and others like him might be willing to undergo
White's pioneering surgery, no one in authority will let him perform it, at
least not in the U. S.

For now, there is no chance of ethics committees approving it,
White concedes. He does not think this is because the operation raises
serious ethical issues.

"I would not be performing experiments on people. I have already
done the appropriate dissections on human cadavers."

So what's the problem? "The media circus that would surround the
operation if it was performed in America. That and the fact that we
do not yet know how long someone with a total body transplant would

But White says that was the problem with heart transplants when
they were first done.

White might simply decide to do the operation outside the U.S. He has
been invited to the Ukraine. "They have very fine neurosurgical
facilities," he notes. And they also have no ethics committees.

"Sure," adds White. "But ethics are really not the issue. We're talking
about saving lives here."

Others are not so sure. Brian Jennett, who recently retired as
professor of neurosurgery in Glasgow, is sceptical of the value of White's

"As far as I can see, this kind of operation, whether on animals or
humans, does not have much value in terms of furthering knowledge.

"And the crucial question is: 'What is its practical result in
terms of benefit to the patient?' I haven't seen any evidence that there is a
significant benefit."

As a committed Catholic, White would be deeply concerned if the
Catholic Church was opposed to head transplants. It is unlikely to be
a problem, he says.

"The Church accepted the concept of brain death. It is now
recognized that if the brain is unable to function at all, then the person is
clinically dead, even if his or her body is intact, and can function.
Brain-dead people will be the source of the bodies to be transplanted
on to new heads."

But what about God? "Head transplantation does not violate any
fundamental theological principle," says Dr. Helen Watt of the
Catholic Lincare Centre for Medical Ethics.

"The religious objections are essentially practical. They centre on
such things as the effects on the donor's relatives of his body being
attached to a different head."

It is easy to imagine those effects could be traumatic. It would, at
the very least, be extremely disorienting to have (say) your wife's
body used in a head transplant operation -- particularly if the
problem of connecting up the spinal cord was solved, so the new
individual could be as= mobile as the old one.

Who would the new person be? Your wife with a new head? Or a
different person who had been given her body?

These questions raise profound questions about the nature of
personal identity. White does not have much time for them.

"I think everyone accepts that personality lies in the brain."

He also recognizes a person's identity is not exhausted by his
brain. "The soul defines identity."

However basic the contradiction may seem to others, White does not
experience any tension between his religious and scientific

"Operating on the brain is an almost mystical experience.

"When you start to understand it, you just cannot regard it as a
wholly natural product. When I look at this 3 pound lump of
white jelly, and think what it can do . . . it amazes me."