One of the ironies of the information age is we are probably dumber as a result of the sea of information in which all of us now swim. Some of it is due to the volume of information coming at us. It’s just too hard to sort the nonsense from the truth. At the same time, publications are so desperate to get our attention, they are willing to post the most outlandish click bait. People naturally assume there is some effort by publishers to vet their stories.
Mass media seems to have encouraged the production of bullshit too. Social science stories are a pretty good example. The researchers slap on a press release that wildly overstates their results, because they know the stupid people in the media will run with it. The result is we get, often on the same day, a report saying coffee causes cancer and coffee prevents cancer. In reality, the studies are crap and don’t pass the laugh test, but that no longer matters.
Anyway, that’s always important to keep in mind when reading any medical story these days. This one about head transplants is a good example.
After more than a year of deliberation, the controversial Italian has set a date of “around Christmas 2017” in China to perform the first ever human head transplant.
He said that his team of Chinese scientists and the technology are now ready to perform the operation, and that the only obstacles needed to be overcame now are funding and, perhaps the most problematic of all, ethical approval.
Dr Canavero said: “We’re looking at a date around Christmas 2017 to perform the transplant in China.
“The Chinese team has already experimented on human cadavers to hone the technology.”
He added that the patient, who will be Chinese, could make a full recovery within a year of the procedure.
The Italian had said that he would perform the controversial operation on Russian patient Valery Spiridonov – a sufferer of a rare muscle-wasting disorder, but he said that he could not find a donor in China due to biological reasons.
Despite the obvious high-risks associated with the surgery, which will see Canavero remove a person’s head and put it onto another body, he says that he has established a way to perform it successfully.
He will cool both the donor and recipient to 12C so that cells don’t die due to a lack of oxygen.
He explained: “This’ll give enough time to cut the tissue around each neck and link the majorblood vessels through tiny tubes.”
The recipient will then be kept in a medically induced coma for several weeks “to limit movement of the newly fused neck, while electrodes stimulate the spinal cord to strengthen its new connections.”
That last bit is where I get off the bus. Medicine has been stymied by this for a generation which is why they have had no success treating spinal cord injuries. As of now, there is no way to reattach a severed spinal cord. It’s why we have protocols for handling suspected spinal injuries. It is to prevent further damage that could come from a broken vertebra. If these head transplant guys have figured out how to reattach a spinal cord, that would be a huge breakthrough for medicine.
The technical aspects are just one part of it. The human brain grows and develops with the body. This proposed procedure is not a head transplant; it is a body transplant. The brain would have to instantly figure out how every cell in the new body works without making a mistake. We know from stroke victims that “re-learning” basic functions can take years. Your brain would take a lifetime to figure out how to use a whole new body.
That said, it does bring up an interesting subject. Our sense of self lives in our consciousness, but is intimately tied to our physical self. The new body would most likely trigger a degree of madness that is unimaginable to us. Even schizophrenics can rely on their fingers moving as expected and their eyes blinking without any surprises. Imagine ever conceivable sense being foreign and relentlessly assaulting the patient’s mind.
That would be the great challenge for the singularity guys. Uploading yourself to the grid assumes you can digitally recreate all of the sensory inputs that make up your sense of self. You may be able to upload your mind to the internet, but the result is you go insane and are erased by an anti-virus program. Since you can’t know these things in advance, the singularity could very well be nothing more than a brief period of madness before death.