Bioethics Blogs

Getting aHead: ethical issues facing human head transplants

By Ryan Purcell

Gummy bear head transplant, courtesy of flickr user Ella Phillips
In a widely circulated Boston Globe editorial this summer, Steven Pinker told bioethicists to “get out of the way” of scientific progress. There is abundant human suffering in the world today, he said, and the last thing we need is a bunch of hand wringing to slow down efforts to attenuate or even eliminate it. The prospect of head transplantation, however, has the potential to make us all a bit more appreciative of our local bioethicists. Even if there were not any technical issues (of which, there are of course plenty), coming to terms with the muddier personal and societal issues inherent in a procedure such as this could take quite a while. Nevertheless, Dr. Sergio Canavero is not planning to wait around and wants to perform a human head transplantation by the end of 2017. Are we ready?

Dr. Jordan Amadio, an Emory neurosurgery resident and co-founder of Neurolaunch, led a discussion on the topic at the Emory Center for Ethics Neuroethics Program’s November “Neuroethics, Neuroscience, and the News” series. As a neurosurgeon he was able to shed light on the technical aspects of Dr. Canavero’s proposal to a full room of students and faculty members from across the humanities and sciences (the topic drew quite a bit of interest on campus). In short, Dr. Amadio was skeptical. Unlike peripheral nerves, spinal nerves do not readily regenerate (but see this ref). There has been an enormous effort in neuroscience and physiology to understand how to regenerate spinal nerves.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.