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Lend me your ears (and eyes and nose and mouth and brain)

by on 2015/03/03

Two stories, neither of which were based on a particular research finding, dominated the science pages toward the latter part of last week. Don’t worry – I’m not going to talk about that dress. I was much more interested by the media coverage surrounding the proposal by an Italian neurosurgeon that he is two year away from transplanting an individual’s head onto a different body. The coverage stems from an excellent piece in New Scientist derived from an editorial – in this case a detailed letter to the editor describing how the various problem stages of the procedure (and there are many problem stages) might be accomplished.

Most major news outlets covered this story, and the results were reasonably entertaining for one reason or another. The Guardian gets particularly high marks for the coverage – providing some interesting historical context of transplant surgery in hands (this has been done successfully for well over 20 years now), and noting cases where the recipient has decided they didn’t like the limb any more. While this is an interesting take on the potential psychological consequences of the procedure, the fact that a transplant can take place in the peripheral nervous system doesn’t imply it will work on the brain/spine – the problem being that cells do not re-connect with one another in the central nervous system. The Independent also provides good coverage, sticking quite close to the New Scientist source article, but summarizing it fairly concisely. The Telegraph succumbs to the temptation to draw a Frankenstein analogy in the headline, although the piece itself is fairly technical (once again, sticking close to the New Scientist article). The Daily Mail takes a slightly less science-oriented (more offensive?) approach, accompanying their article with pictures of celebrities who might benefit from the procedure. They also provide a cost (£7.5 million) for the procedure (although it’s not clear where this figure has come from – it’s not in any of the source material, at any rate), presumably in an effort to shock the poor NHS tax-paying public. Another rather odd ethical point is raised with regard to who would ‘own’ any children, suggesting that any offspring would “biologically belong” to the donor. On the up side, the Daily Mail article does link to a segment of Dr Canavero’s slightly bizarre TEDx  talk where he outlines what he sees as the key part of the procedure – the deliberate severing of the spinal cord with a sharp instrument, avoiding the diffuse damage that occurs with a normal spinal cord injury (if you’ve ever wanted to see an bald man crush a banana with his hand, you’re in for a treat). The video makes for an interesting juxtaposition of a subtle point about neural damage in an otherwise rather unsubtle article.

Given that there are not any experimental details to get wrong, there’s little in the way of errors or over-extending the data in any of the media reports. There are, however, a few critical omissions. For one, the Independent and Telegraph articles refer to the case of a successful head transplant performed on a monkey back in the 1970s, both stating that the monkey died after 9 days when the body rejected the head. What they fail to mention, however, is that the spinal cord was not re-connected, so the monkey was unable to move its body or sense anything – at this point this is the biggest hurdle to overcome in vertebrates rather than rejection of a donor ‘organ’ from an immune system. Surprisingly, given the quality of the source material (and here I refer to the New Scientist piece), the Guardian is the only article of the bunch to mention some more recent work swapping the heads of mice (“…made some headway with mice”). Sadly though, it omits the really interesting part of this research, where the transplant is done at the level of the brainstem – the part of your brain which sits atop your spinal column, containing structures which serve to control various physiological functions like breathing and heartbeat – rather than the spinal cord. Helpfully, they do provide a link to the journal article itself, complete with a range of fabulous images, if you’re feeling brave.

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