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A brain transplant or whole-body transplant is a procedure in which the brain of one organism is transplanted into the body of another. It is a procedure distinct from head transplantation, which involves transferring the entire head to a new body, as opposed to the brain only. Theoretically, a person with advanced organ failure could be given a new and functional body while keeping their own personality and memories.
Historically, brain transplants have not been feasible and were widely regarded as improbable if not impossible.
Brain transplants and similar concepts have been explored in various forms of fiction.
One of the most significant barriers to the procedure is the inability of nerve tissue to heal properly; scarred nerve tissue does not transmit signals well (this is why a spinal cord injury is so devastating). However, recent research at the Wistar Institute of the University of Pennsylvania involving tissue-regenerating mice (known as MRL mice) may provide pointers for further research as to how to regenerate nerves without scarring.
There is also a potential problem of the new interface at the spinal cord, in that even if all the nerves are connected successfully, they may still be connected incorrectly, thus not transmitting the same information as the same nerve connection in the previous body. For example, a nerve that used to control the right index finger's muscle group might be connected to a different finger's muscle group, or another body part entirely. If this were to happen to a large number of connections, the person undergoing the transplant might end up with a body which transmitted sensory input to the wrong destination, making it incomprehensible and potentially requiring many years of rehabilitation.
Alternatively a brain–computer interface can be used connecting the subject to his own body. A study using a monkey as a subject shows that it is possible to directly use commands from the brain, bypass the spinal cord and enable hand function. An advantage is that this interface can be adjusted after the surgical interventions are done where nerves can not be reconnected without surgery.
Also, for the procedure to be practical, the age of the donated body must be sufficient: an adult brain cannot fit into a skull that has not reached its full growth, which occurs at age 9–12 years.
There is an advantage, however, with respect to the immune response. The brain is an immunologically privileged organ, so rejection would not be a problem. (When other organs are transplanted, aggressive rejection can occur; this is a major difficulty with kidney and liver transplants.)
Partial brain transplant
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An arguably more reasonable scenario is a partial brain transplant involving only enough tissue to provide key memories and a sense of continuity of identity. A fairly large but indeterminate amount of the brain is devoted to processing and controlling sensory, motor, and autonomic functions such as vision, olfaction, movement, appetite, etc.; transplanting these portions is likely to be difficult and, if the goal is to transfer memories and/or identity, unnecessary. The recipient body of such a transplant probably would have to possess a naïve and never-conscious brain or partial brain, such as in a never-conscious cloned soma. This is the premise of I of Persistence, a human life-extension manifesto and science fiction story. In that story, the older transplanted brain tissue is eventually removed and replaced with youthful tissue, restoring complete youthfulness with continuity (or persistence) of conscious identity.
In 1982 Dr. Dorothy T. Krieger, chief of endocrinology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, achieved notable success with a partial brain transplant in mice. A partial brain transplant could accomplish essentially the same goal — movement of a person's "identity" from one body to another — and thus qualify as a whole-body transplant no less than a full brain transplant. As Dr. Krieger demonstrated, barriers to accomplishing this feat might be much lower than transplantation of the entire brain.
In 1998, a team of surgeons from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center attempted to transplant a group of brain cells to Alma Cerasini, who had suffered a severe stroke that caused the loss of mobility in her right limbs as well as limited speech. The team's hope was that the cells would correct the listed damage.
Brain transplants in popular culture
Transplantation of a human brain from one body into another has appeared on occasion in popular literature. The intended effect is most often either horrific or comedic, though many of these stories explore the medical, ethical, legal, and other issues that would surround the procedure.
- In Alexander Belyayev's novel Hoiti-Toiti (1930) a scientist's brain is transplanted in the body of an elephant.
- The transplant has been a common subject in horror films, most notably Frankenstein.
- The Ultra-Humanite, one of the main villains opposing the Golden Age Superman and Justice Society of America, often "died" at the end of an encounter, only to have his surviving brain transplanted into a new (not always human) body by robots and/or henchmen.
- The novel I Will Fear No Evil (1970) by Robert A. Heinlein features an elderly wealthy man who has his brain transplanted into the body of his beautiful young deceased [discuss] secretary.
- In the 1970s manga Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka, Black Jack performs several brain transplants.
- The movie The Thing with Two Heads (1972) featured a head transplant.
- The Iranian comedy movie The Changed Man (Persian: مرد عوضی ) (1998) featured a brain transplant.
- The comedy movie The Man with Two Brains (1983), starring Steve Martin, revolves around brain transplantation.
- Frederik Pohl's novel Black Star Rising (1985) features a character who has had parts of multiple brains grafted onto his, each conveying a separate personality.
- The TV movie Who Is Julia? (1986) revolves also around brain transplantation.
- In "The Defenseless Dead", a short story by Larry Niven, a criminal tries to hide by this means.
- The novel Eva by Peter Dickinson focuses on the eponymous 14-year-old girl whose brain is transplanted into the body of a chimpanzee.
- The premise for the TV series Now and Again (1999–2000) was the transplantation of lead character Michael Wiseman's brain into a genetically-engineered body to make him into a top-secret super-agent.
- On the fictionalized version of the TV program Days of our Lives as shown on Friends, the dead body of Dr. Drake Ramoray, the character played by Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), has the brain of another character transplanted into it.
- The novel My Brother's Keeper by Charles Sheffield is based on a partial brain transplant. Identical twins suffer major injuries in a crash, including damage to one side of each of their heads. One twin is dying from the loss of vital organs, so a surgeon saves part of his brain by using it to replace part of his brother's.
- In the Cartoon Network movie Re-Animated (2006), the main character Jimmy Roberts (Dominic Janes) has to receive an emergency brain transplant because of a freak accident. He receives the brain of the late Milt Appleday (a parody of Walt Disney), and can see cartoon characters with his new brain.
- In the novel Airhead (2008) by Meg Cabot, a normal girl gets a whole body transplant and thereafter lives as a supermodel.
- In the film The Man with the Screaming Brain, a similar concept is explored by having two partial brains inhabiting the same body.
- Wes Craven's book Fountain Society (1999) deals with this subject.
- The Korean movie The Game (2007), directed by In-ho Yun, revolves around brain transplantation.
- In Starsiege (1999), a mecha-style vehicle simulation game, Harabec is dead, and the brain of Victor Petresun is occupying his body.
- In Skinned by Robin Wasserman, the protagonist, Lia, is fatally injured in a car accident, and "downloaded" into a new, synthetic body.
- In The Simpsons episode Holidays of Future Passed, Lenny's brain is exchanged with Carl's.
- In the game BioShock Infinite the Handyman is created from transplanting a human head and cardiac system into a steam-powered mechanical body, as a way to allow formerly disabled Columbian citizens to live productively.
- In Surgeon Simulator 2013 two of the operations needed to be performed are brain transplants.
- In John Scalzis "Old Mans War" senior citizens are moved from their old bodies to artificially enhanced superclones, to defend the human race agains aliens.
The whole-body transplant is just one of several means of putting a consciousness into a new body that have been explored by both scientists and writers.
A similar procedure often found in science fiction is the transfer of one consciousness to another without moving the brain. This is found in many sources, most often a body swap between two characters of an ongoing television series; it occurs in the original Star Trek series twice, as well as Freaky Friday, Farscape, Stargate SG-1, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Red Dwarf, Avatar; even in Archie comics. Since there is no movement of the brain(s), however, this is not quite the same as a whole-body transplant.
In the horror film The Skeleton Key, the protagonist, Caroline, discovers that the old couple she is looking after are poor Voodoo witch doctors who stole the bodies of two young, privileged children in their care using a ritual which allows a soul to swap bodies. Unfortunately the evil old couple also trick Caroline and their lawyer into the same procedure, and both end up stuck in old dying bodies unable to speak while the witch doctors walk off with their young bodies.
In Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief, the vampire Lestat discovers a man, Raglan James, who can will himself into another person's body. Lestat demands that the procedure be used on him to allow him to be human once again, but soon finds that he has made an error and is forced to recapture James in his vampiric form so he can take his body back.
In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Emperor Palpatine is able to transfer his consciousness into clone bodies. In a sense, this allows him to return to life after the Battle of Endor, as well as other events where his current body dies. The clone bodies aren't quite as good as his original body and waste quickly due to the decaying power of the Dark Side of the Force. Upon realizing this, he tries to take over the body of Anakin Solo, but is unsuccessful and eventually meets his final end.
Similar in many ways to this is the idea of mind uploading, promoted by Marvin Minsky and others with a mechanistic view of natural intelligence and an optimistic outlook regarding artificial intelligence. It is also a goal of Raëlism, a small cult based in Florida, France, and Quebec. While the ultimate goal of transplanting is transfer of the brain to a new body optimized for it by genetics, proteomics, and/or other medical procedures, in uploading the brain itself moves nowhere and may even be physically destroyed or discarded; the goal is rather to duplicate the information patterns contained within the brain.
Another similar literary theme, though different from either procedure described above, is the transplanting of a human brain into an artificial, usually robotic, body. Examples of this include: Caprica; Fullmetal Alchemist; Ghost In The Shell; RoboCop; the DC Comics superhero Robotman; the Cybermen from the Doctor Who television series; the cymeks in the Legends of Dune series; or full-body cyborgs in many manga or works in the cyberpunk genre. In one episode of Star Trek, Spock's Brain is stolen and installed in a large computer-like structure; and in "I, Mudd" Uhura is offered immortality in an android body. The novel Harvest of Stars by Poul Anderson features many central characters who undergo such transplants, and deals with the difficult decisions facing a human contemplating such a procedure.
- Body swap
- Body swap appearances in media
- Brain-computer interface
- Cyborgs in fiction (for stories of brains transplanted into wholly artificial bodies)
- Donovan's Brain
- Head transplant
- I Will Fear No Evil
- Isolated brain
- Mind uploading (whole brain emulation)
- Mind uploading in fiction
- Organ transplant
- C. Ethier, E. R. Oby, M. J. Bauman, L. E. Miller: Restoration of grasp following paralysis through brain-controlled stimulation of muscles. Nature, April 2012.
- Lou Jacobson: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste. Lingua Franca, August 1997.
- Mike Darwin: But What Will The Neighbors Think? A Discourse On The History And Rationale Of Neurosuspension. Cryonics, October 1988.
- Ap (18 June 1982). "Transplant Success Reported With Part of a Mouse's Brain". The New York Times (San Francisco). p. 9. Retrieved 20 July 2010.
- Vedantam, Shankar. "Artificial Brain Cells Implanted In Patient The Procedure Is The First Of Its Kind. Doctors Hope Eventually To Treat Brain Disorders This Way.". philly.com. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
- "Selections from Marie O'Mahony's Cyborg: The Man-Machine - Uploading".
- Dr Robert White, profile by David Bennun in The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 2000
- Today / Brain Transplants (BBC Radio4)
- FieldNotes: A mind is a terrible thing to waste, by Lou Jacobson (Lingua Franca)
- Dr. Robert J. White to Discuss "Rise and Fall of the Human Brain" (Lakeland Community College)
- From Science Fiction to Science: 'The Whole Body Transplant' (New York Times)
- Spinal cord regeneration
- Researchers Stretch Nerve Fibers to New Limits (Fox News)
- Spinal Cord Bridge Bypasses Injury To Restore Mobility (EmaxHealth)
- Cancer-Causing Protein May Heal Damaged Spinal Cord & Brain Cells (Newswise.com)
- Swiss make breakthrough in spinal research: Novartis has started clinical trials into spinal cord regeneration (swissinfo.ch)