first human head transplant to be performed next month

I wrote about Sergio Canavero in my How To Live Forever book (online version here).

It’s just been announced that his long-awaited infamous operation, in which a living human head will be removed from a body and placed onto another, is to be performed next month in China. The location is not known. The patient is not known. The donor is not known.

If this fails, it will not be surprising, but it will also make it harder for any other experimental surgeons to get permission or patients to try again.

If it succeeds, then its fantastic and terrifying at the same time.

In a fantastic way, it means that people that have debilitating bodily conditions that cause weakness or paralysis have a chance to overcome all those issues at once.

In a terrifying way, it means that it science-fiction dystopian stories such as Spares or The Island step closer to reality – humans that are bred solely for the purpose of being a replacement body for an aging clone.

It is unlikely that “back-alley operations” will happen in this, as the expertise needed to do the surgery means that only the most educated and practiced ones could perform it, and that means that they could make easy money with legitimate operations instead, not needing to go underground to do it.

Is it possible to live forever with this method? A person with sufficient resources could use this trick to live for centuries, replacing their body every few decades. But, because age is about more than just the age of the body, this is just a way of prolonging life – the brain would eventually succumb to deterioration even if the body did not. In a way, it’s a way to live long enough to see proper immortality solutions to appear.

using carbon nanotubes for neural prostheses

Carbon nanotubes are amazing things – they are electrically conductive, thermally conductive, so dark that materials made from them are blacker than whatever you think black looks like, and they are so strong that we may one day make elevators out of them that reach right out into space.

CSIRO_ScienceImage_1074_Carbon_nanotubes_being_spun_to_form_a_yarn
image: carbon nanofibers being spun into yarn

There have been fears circulating that nanotubes are biologically dangerous.

Every new thing has provoked fear-mongering – GMO, vaccines, the telephone, cars, the loom, but the more high-tech a new technology is, the harder it is to dissuade people of those fears, because it’s hard to explain high-tech in a way that’s easy for those fearful people to understand.

In the case of carbon nanotubes, the main fear is that because they are fibrous in nature (like fibre-glass and asbestos), they’re dangerous to the skin and lungs as an irritant, but because they are also so thin that they can penetrate biological cells (which fibreglass and asbestos can’t do), there is an added fear that they can disrupt the cell functions.

A study by researchers led by Laura Bellerini showed that not only do carbon nanotubes not interfere with the function of cells, but that they may be perfect for creating neural interfaces; something we will need for when we are coming up with ways to either speak directly to the brain, read directly from the brain.

The study also showed that when neurons are embedded in carbon nanotubes, they mature more quickly and grow new synapses (connections with other neurons).

While the potential for this goes well into sci-fi (uploading the brain, for example), the near-term uses are still phenomenal.

An example use in the near-term is to help create a link between an artificial hippocampal prosthesis, and the surrounding brain tissue.

The hippocampus is the simplest part of the brain to understand – data comes in one end, and goes out the other. A team of researchers spent ten years slicing a hippocampus up into tiny slices and measuring the electrical pathways, before recreating it in software, with an array of input probes, and another array of output probes. When the probes were placed in a rat’s brain (after cutting out its hippocampus), it was found that the prosthesis allowed the rat to make new memories. Human trials are currently underway.

Probably the hardest part of replacing the hippocampus is the reconnection, where the existing defunct hippocampus is removed, and the new artificial one is connected. The artifical device doesn’t need to go into the brain itself, but there must be a connection made between the brain and the device. This is currently done with an array of needles, but there is a limit to how fine those needles can get.

With carbon nanotubes, there is no such limit – because they are so much thinner than the thinnest metal needles, it should be possible to simply slide an entire array of them into place and have the carbon nanotubes automatically interface with neurons.

non-invasive deep-brain stimulation

Deep-brain stimulation is used in a number of therapies, for diseases such as Parkinson’s, major depression, OCD, dystonia. It is also used to lessen chronic pain and to help regulate Essential tremors.

This involves drilling a 1.4cm hole in the head, then inserting electrodes into the brain into the affected part.

Obviously, there are risks involved in this.

A team at MIT has come up with a method to provide stimulation at any desired part of the brain using electrodes that are placed on the scalp instead of embedded within the brain. No surgery required.

How it works is that the electrodes, placed on either side of the head, give out waves of electricity. The waves interfere with each other like two waves meeting in a pond, cancelling each other out except for in specific points where the waves are intensified instead.

splash-water-waves-4559

An advantage to this method is that the intersection points can be “steered” by adjusting the waves.

My opinion: this method should make a lot of surgeries unnecessary, and will make the therapies for those disease so simple that it might eventually be possible to simple buy an off-the-shelf electrode cap and run some open source software to fix your issues.