Transplanting Minds Into New Bodies

The full brain transplant in popular literature is generally defined as the personality and consciousness moving uninterrupted from one body into another.  But what would it be like to take your brain and transplant it into an entirely new and unfamiliar body?  And furthermore, how could science make this possible?  Though it’s often thought to be far beyond human technical ability, new developments in the field of medical science make this incredible task seem more possible than ever.

It all started as with so many things as an idea in a story.  The idea of one person’s entire personality, their memories, and their consciousness transferring into another body has been around since the days tales of Hercules were first uttered in Greek epics.  Back then the consciousness was defined more as an immaterial and metaphysical soul than a physical organ such as the brain.  Still, as the legends matured with time, the question became less magical and more a matter of possibility.

Obviously the movement of the brain from one body into another carries with it an incredible potential for abuse by those seeking fresh bodies to take and replace with their own brains.  But ethical dilemmas would no doubt be at least partially stunted by the technological requirements for the procedure itself.  First, there are more nerve endings between the brain stem and the body than a typical neurosurgeon could effectively close in a reasonable amount of time.  These powerful conduits for energy not only allow for movement in the muscles, but are an important part in the transmission of sensory data.  Without a proper system capable of determining which nerve endings should connect with a corresponding one on the new patient, these wires could eventually get “crossed.”  And the end result would be for the patient an incredibly bizarre and confusing mix of sensory data.  Imagine feeling what your eyes see, hearing what your hands touch, and combining all other sensory input in a way that didn’t make sense.  Such an information trade would make things so difficult and confusing for patients that they would likely go a long way toward disrupting everything.  And the number of nerve endings involved may require a technological surgeon to deal with the incredible amount of simple connections involved.  But the actual transplanting of an entire brain may not be the answer.

Instead, scientists have begun looking into the far simpler process of partial brain transplantation with limited success in mice.  The idea is that the brain transplant requires so much connection, but the “personality” resides in a fairly limited area of the brain.  As a result the translated brain “hijacks” the rest of it and actually uses the motor function and everything else still involved in the rest of the brain.

But a question of ethics arises when we ask ourselves where these other brains and bodies come from.  Effectively the donor body would have to have its own personality removed before the new one could be put in.  And although this isn’t effectively killing the body, it would be killing the part of the brain we consider most precious.  Another question arises regarding the different areas of the brain possessing personality traits.  Is it possible two people may end up residing in a single brain as a result of such an operation?

If the idea of moving consciousness from one body to another still seems far fetched, consider the following: Dr. Robert J White in 1963 kept a brain alive outside of its body via machines.  That same year he successfully transplanted the head of a monkey onto another’s body.  That monkey survived for seven days even though organ rejection therapy was still in its infancy.