Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Head: Giving & Getting

I’m the kind of person who obsesses about things once they are sufficiently planted in my mind. So it is with death and its associated problems. You know, like the end of your identity and shit.
Anyway, I read a few years ago about an experiment where they transplanted the head of a gorilla onto another gorilla and that it survived for some period of time. This got me very excited. The idea of head transplants have always stayed with me. So, when someone says something about getting old or dying my stock response became something along the lines of: “I figure by the time I get that old they’ll have perfected head transplants, so, no problem.”
Well, now I’ve been thinking about death a lot this year for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I turned 40 this year. Now, I know that’s not particularly old, probably barely middle age these days. But, still, it means I’m now heading into the second half of my life. I’m on the downslope, as it were. Of course, being obsessive, I immediately began to develop all sorts of aches and pains – my guts hurt, pain between my shoulder blades, pain in my chest (the counter-effect of the shoulder pain), arthritis in my toes, tendonitis in my left arm, bad knees, weakening eyesight. Fortunately I don’t yet drool and my penis still works. Most of the time.
But this neurotic gift that I received for my 40th birthday (aw, couldn’t you have just gotten me a hair transplant?) was accompanied by the news that my father (and my uncle, and their uncle) have or had Alzheimer’s Disease. And, to top it off, it might be early onset Familial Alzheimer’s Disease, which they theorize is directly inherited (you can see my groaning on this stuff in an earlier post). Suffice it to say it was a very big log on my obsessive-compulsive fire about my looming journey to the after-life.
The point is this: I suddenly started thinking about head transplants again.
Now, the other day at school – I’m in the Writers’ Lab at the Canadian Film Centre – we were told to generate an idea for an ultra-low-budget feature film. I wracked my brains and there was the head transplant idea again.
So, I googled head transplant and discovered that, in fact, there had been a head transplant performed some years ago. The story goes like this:
During the Cold War, Uncle Joe Stalin sunk a whole load of bread into scientific studies in life extension – I suspect he was worried about his own mortal coil more than world domination here. Secret labs in the woods were established. The whole evil scientist thing. One of the scientists on the trail was Dr. Demikhov. He pioneered all sorts of techniques for organ transplants and has been forgotten for his efforts. Instead, we remember Marilyn Monroe. I’ll leave you to ponder the significance of this.
In 1954 Demikhov attached the upper body and head of a puppy onto the neck of a full-grown mastiff. Both survived, interacted, drank, panted, etc. The world was stunned.
And the Americans shit their pants.
Why, if the Russkies can transplant heads and we can’t, Communism will take over the world. Then who will buy General Motors vehicles? Who will buy IBM computers? Who will buy our guns? Hell, who needs guns when you’ve got multi-headed animals – maybe even multi-headed soldiers.
Never to be outdone, the Yanks sank some loot into the same research – head transplant research, that is.
Enter Dr. Robert White. A World War Two veteran, White was also a brilliant neurosurgeon by day. However at night (cue lightning and thunder), he was conducting experiments on brain removal with dogs; ie. trying to keep the brains alive outside of their bodies. He even transplanted the brain of one dog into the neck of another and kept it alive for some time. The trouble was, as he saw it, how could you tell if the brain was still thinking or not? The only way to know this is if the transplanted brain had some way of interacting with the world. Ah-ha, he thought, if I can transplant the whole head, then we’ll see.
He spent three years planning the head transplant operation with a monkey. A rhesus monkey by the looks of it. And he did it. He cut off the heads of two monkey and plopped the head from monkey A onto the body of monkey B, just like that. It opened its eyes and looked around. It ate food from a tube, etc. etc. Now, of course once you cut the spinal chord you’re screwed and so the monkey was quadriplegic. And, being a test animal that killed it a few days later (if anybody needs a union its test animals. Yipes!). But here was the world’s first total body transplant.
Anyway, this was in 1970 or 1971. And instead of making White a superhero of the science world, it made him something of a pariah. Animal rights activists freaked out and threatened him and his family so that he required police protection for a time. And that was that.
But, what if secretly, Dr. White kept a lab somewhere in Switzerland or something. And suppose he had this one patient, a very rich young man who had suffered a terrible accident in, I don’t know, 1976, which paralyzed him from the neck down. In fact, his body was quite destroyed so that in a short time he was facing total organ failure. He hires Dr. White to secretly perform the head transplant operation, removing the head of a brain dead man and transplanting the quadriplegic man’s head onto the body. Well, now he’s been living like this, with this secret, for 30 years. Every eight or ten years he needs to get a new body because the old one is failing him. Now, say it is 2008 and scientists somewhere discover a revolutionary way to re-grow nerve tissue. After all these years – and all these bodies – our paralyzed hero can now see the possibility of walking again. But first he once one final new body…
And there you have one tiny disturbing insight into the brain of an artist.
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