Will We Ever Be Able to Transplant Human Brains?

Hello. It's time for "Hey, Science," our notoriously scientific weekly feature in which we have your most provocative scientific questions answered by real live scientists (or related experts). No question is too smart for our reluctant army of scientific enlistees, whether they know it or not. This week, neurosurgeons answer the question: Will we ever be able to transplant human brains?

THE QUESTION: This week's question comes from Gawker reader and possible zombie Sarah, who asks, "Will brain transplants ever be possible? And, after the transplant, who would the person be – would they be the person whose brain was transplanted or the person whose body got the new brain?" On top of that, would continuous brain transplants be a good way to keep a mind alive forever? To the scientists.

Angelique Bordey, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience, Yale University School of Medicine:

1. [Will there ever be brain transplants?] Not sure. Why not. Spooky though. You have to change not just the brain but also the spinal cord otherwise forget walking.

2. [Would the person's identity be maintained?] Psychological horrible as we grow our brain/mind to our body. So personality could change just due to the psychological shock.

3. [Could we stay alive forever this way?] No. our brain is aging as fast as the rest of our body. We will be able to replace organs heart lungs kidney…..with artificial ones but not the brain. We will all end up with cancer or Alzheimer or another neurodegeneration. Back to baby stage.

The bigger question: do we want to live forever? Why would we. Dying gives us a reason to live.

Khalid M. Abbed MD, Professor of Neurosurgery, Yale:

Human brain transplants are very far away but may someday be possible. A key step in making brain transplants possible is the ability to connect nerve fibers from the transplanted brain to the native spinal cord. This is very difficult and is one of the main reasons why severe spinal cord injuries are so devastating and usually permanent.

If brain transplants were possible, the identity of the person would undoubtedly change and be more like the identity of the donor of the transplanted brain. This is because, unlike a transplanted heart, the brain is where identity and personality are stored.

Konstantin Slavin MD, Professor of Neurosurgery, University of Illinois at Chicago:

Yes, I do believe the day will come when there will be a "whole body transplant" – so the brain of a person will be given a new body (and not the other way around). If this happens, the identity and personality of the original brain owner will be allowed to continue within new physical body, natural or artificial. This will not keep the person alive indefinitely as the brains age and degenerate over time – and I would not be very optimistic about our ability to stop aging completely.

[Dr. Slavin also referred us to the science fiction novel "Professor Dowell's Head," by Russian science fiction writer Alexander Belyaev. Someone please leave a book report in the discussion section.]

THE VERDICT: Yes! Neurosurgeons are optimistic about the theoretical possibility of a human brain transplant, although it does not seem to be coming in the near term. If you had your brain transplanted into another person's body, you would maintain your own identity, although you might be somewhat traumatized and fucked up by the experience. And no, transplants will not allow you to live forever—and really, would you want to?? (A: No, only until they invent robot sex.)

Previously
The shockingly educational archives of "Hey, Science" can be found here.

[Thanks to all of our scientific experts. Do you have a weird question for "Hey, Science?" Send it to me. Image by Jim Cooke.]