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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is There a Body Transplant in Your Future?

Is There a Body Transplant in Your Future?

This week an Italian neuroscientist named Dr. Sergio Canavero released a paper outlining how to perform a human head transplant.The scientist made headlines by announcing that head transplants (which can also be called body transplants) are feasible and can be done in the near future on humans. Supposedly the procedure has already been performed on other mammals such as rhesus monkeys. The procedure involves rapidly chilling the two bodies involved, cutting off their heads, attaching one head to the other head, and then gradually warming the body of the transplant recipient, who has an old head and a new body.

If such procedures are done any time soon, they will probably be done on special cases, such as people who have been paralyzed from the neck down. But what about using a body transplant as a radical means of extending human life? Let us explore the feasibility of that. The big question is: even if it were possible for a person to extend his life by getting a body transplant for his aging body, how could the young body be acquired? I can imagine several different ways.

Acquiring a Body From a Newly Deceased Youth

One way to get bodies for body transplants would be to use bodies from young people who had died naturally, from events such as gunshots to the head or drug overdoses. This method would be fairly uncontroversial, as you would only be using a body that would otherwise soon rot in the grave. But the main problem with this method is that only a small number of people could use it, because relatively few young people die.

Acquiring a Body From a Human Raised to be a Body Donor

Another method would be to raise ordinary humans specifically for the purpose of serving as body donors. The humans might be told from an early age that they were not destined to live beyond an age of about 20, at which point they would serve as body donors. This method is technically feasible, but morally unacceptable and appalling. The film Never Let Me Go offered a chilling look at a future society in which a group of young people were raised purely to be organ donors. Raising humans to be used for body transplants would be even more chilling and repugnant.

Acquiring a Body From an Unconscious Human Raised to be a Body Donor

Another method would be to somehow raise unconscious humans specifically for the purpose of serving as body donors. The humans would somehow have the higher levels of their brain removed as early as possible, so that they would have no consciousness, personality, or memory. But the lower brain stem functions of these humans would be left intact, so that their hearts and lungs could keep working. They might be fed intravenously.

While a little less appalling than the previous method, this method would also be very morally objectionable to many people. Somehow there is something revolting about the idea of a human body slowly growing on a bed for 18 years, while the body is attached to a bunch of sensors, wires, and tubes.

Growing a Human Body in a Lab

Another method would involve growing a human body in a lab, through some type of technique that might allow the quick growth of a human body. Scientists have been able to grow organs in a lab, and they might somehow progress to growing an entire full-grown body in a lab, possibly by speeding up the normal human growth mechanisms.

Creating a Human Body Through 3D Printing

Another method might dispense with growth of the body altogether, and attempt to simply assemble or produce a full-grown human body. Scientists have recently been able to create an artificial ear by using 3D printing. If 3D printing progresses sufficiently, we might be able to somehow print layer-by-layer a 3D body that could be used as a donor for body transplants. It is likely that 3D printing could one day be used to produce something that resembles a dead human body, but whether it could be used to produce something like a functional human body, with all the processes working, is an unanswered question.

Using an Electronic Body for a Body Transplant

Still another method (and one that seems relatively sound from an ethical standpoint) is the method of creating an electronic or robotic replica of the human body, and using that for body transplants. This might be advantageous from the standpoint of greatly extending the human lifespan. Rather than having at 80 a body transplant that would give you another 60 years of life, and then having to worry about getting another body transplant 60 years later, you could instead get an electronic and robotic body that might last you for 500 years. But we might not have the technology for using electronic body transplants for many decades, perhaps not until the 22nd century.

Downsides of Body Transplants

There would seem to be two main downsides of having a body transplant as a way of extending your life.

The first negative aspect is that if you had a body transplant when you were very old, you might then have a nice young body, but you would still have the same wrinkled old face and the same old aging brain. So imagine if you lived to 80 and had a body transplant. You might then five years later get Alzheimer's disease. Rather than living a few years in senility, you might live sixty years in senility. Not much of a bargain. 

body transplant

Another negative aspect is the possibility that the body transplant would go wrong, and that you would end up with a new body, but be totally paralyzed. You might then live 60 additional years in such a state of paralysis. Of course, your doctors might try a second body transplant operation to fix the problem. But perhaps you didn't have the money to pay for that. How could you earn it, with your body being paralyzed?


In summary, I conclude that there is some possibility of a body transplant in your future, but only if you are young and rich (or someone who will become rich). People who fall into neither of these categories (such as myself) must hope for some simpler method of life extension, such as a nice simple youth pill.