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That viral video showing a head transplant is a fake. But it might be real someday. 

Computer scienceThat viral video showing a head transplant is a fake. But it might be real someday. 


Aging bypass

What is certain is that head transplantation—or body transplant, as some prefer to call it—is a subject of growing, if speculative, interest in longevity circles, the kind inhabited by biohackers, techno-anarchists, and others on the fringes of biotechnology and the startup scene and who form the most dedicated cadre of extreme life-extensionists.

Many proponents of longer life spans will admit things don’t look good. Anti-aging medicine so far hasn’t achieved any breakthroughs. In fact, as research advances into the molecular details, the problem of death only looks more and more complicated. As we age, our billions of cells gradually succumb to the irreversible effects of entropy. Fixing that may never be possible.

By comparison, putting your head on a young body looks comparatively easy—a way to bypass aging in a single stroke, at least as long as your brain holds out. The idea was strongly endorsed in a technical road map put forward this year by the Longevity Biotech Fellowship, a group espousing radical life extension, which rated “body replacement” as the cheapest, fastest pathway to “solve aging.”  

Will head transplants work? In a crude way, they already have. In the early 1970s, the American neurosurgeon Robert White performed a “cephalic exchange,” cutting off the head of a monkey, placing it on the body of another, and sewing together their circulatory systems. Reports suggest the head remained conscious, and able to see, for a few days before it died.

Most likely, a human head transplant would also be fatal. But even if you lived, you’d be a mind atop a paralyzed body, since exchanging heads means severing the spinal cord. 

Yet head-swapping proponents can point to plausible solutions for that, too—a number of which appear in the BrainBridge video. In Europe, for instance, some paralyzed people have walked again after doctors bridged their spinal injuries with electronics. Other scientists in China are studying growth factors to regrow nerves.

Joined at the neck

As shocking as the video is, BrainBridge is in some ways overly conventional in its thinking. If you want to keep your brain going, why must it be on a human body? You might instead keep the head alive on a heart-lung machine—with an Elon Musk neural implant to let it surf the internet, for as long as it lives. Or consider how doctors hoping to solve the organ shortage have started putting hearts and kidneys from genetically engineered pigs into patients. If you don’t mind having a tail and four legs, maybe your head could be placed onto a pig’s body.

Let’s take it a step further. Why does the body “donor” have to be dead at all? Anatomically, it’s possible to have two heads. There are conjoined twins who share one body. If your spouse were diagnosed with a fatal cancer, you would surely welcome his or her head next to yours, if it allowed their mind to live on. After all, the concept of a “living donor” is widely accepted in transplant medicine already, and married couples are often said to be joined at the hip. Why not at the neck, too?

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