CHILLED MONKEY BRAINS
Head Transplants Made Easy
INTERVIEW BY DAVID FEINBERG
Dr. Robert J. White performed his first neurosurgery at age 15—on a frog cadaver in high school bio class. Over the next 50 years, he operated on more than 10,000 brains, one of which accounted for the most ambitious neurological experiment in history: In the 70s, he successfully transplanted the head of one monkey to the body of another. For White’s efforts, the monkey awoke from the anesthesia and tried to bite his finger off.
Nevertheless, his long career in neuroscience has helped save countless human lives, even if he’s killed lots of dogs and monkeys along the way. The animal rights movement really hates him, but he’s not the mad scientist they make him out to be—he’s a good Catholic who’s served as an adviser on medical ethics to the last four popes.
There is tons more with Dr. White this month on Motherboard on VBS.TV.
Through constant icing, brain tissue is preserved during surgery, which gives surgeons hours to dig inside people’s heads “Surgeons had to come up with something that either provided or negated the brain’s high demand for oxygen and glucose. And the easiest way was to reduce the temperature. If the state of its intrinsic temperature is reduced, then the amount of nutrition it requires is also reduced. The original technique I worked out decompresses the spinal cord at the same time it’s being cooled. You open up the dura, which is the tough membrane that surrounds it, so this way the cord can swell some and still recover.”
The first successfully isolated brain was kept alive by connecting it to a “donor animal,” aka a drugged-up monkey. “Fifty years ago, there were a lot of world-class people trying to isolate the brain. But nobody was able to conduct a satisfactory isolated-brain preparation. We’re talking about a subhuman primate. The difficulty here was that the surgery was extensive. But one of the fascinating things we found was that brain tissue did not have the capacity to be rejected like other organs did.”
Rather than remove the brain and risk death, Dr. White posited lopping off the whole head and transplanting it. “The only way to settle the argument of whether isolated brains are conscious is to determine that the brain is not only alive but also functioning. People wanted to see if it would respond to pain or discomfort. I realized that the only way we could keep the brain functioning was to leave the cranial nerves, which are part of the brain and head, connected. That would require something people find inappropriate, and that would be a head transfer.”
The first successful monkey-head transplant lasted only two days before the animal died. Future transplants extended the life span but never solved the issue of paralysis following the severed spinal cord. “I’ve carried out some very dangerous operations, probably some that would not have been approved. But I’ve done them under life-threatening circumstances. I’ve had wonderful relationships with patients. I really miss the opportunity to go into a room filled with technology and try to save lives. I’m a little unhappy about the way medicine is going and the way it’s being controlled. But I’m proud of what I was able to do. And I’d be willing to do it all over again.”
An actual monkey brain, isolated by use of mechanical circulation, before it withers and dies. “It was the anatomical layout of the blood vessels from the neck to the brain that caused trouble. To isolate the monkey brain, a neurosurgeon had to operate under the brain and search out the blood vessels. You had to save the anatomical vessels that were absolutely necessary to keep the brain alive. Some of the questions that came up all the time were, ‘Well, Dr. White, do you know if this brain is thinking? Is it alive? What is going through its mind?’ We showed superb EEG records, which indicated alertness. We showed them the brain tissue after the brain was removed from its mechanical support system, and it looked normal.”
Images courtesy of Dr. White