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Can You Keep a Severed Head Alive?
July 15, 2004 1:22 PM   Subscribe

MedFilter: Is there any reason why, with an enriched blood supply attached, a severed head couldn't be kept alive? If so, could it be kept alive beyond typical life expectancy? The only worthwhile attempt at an answer I can dig up is this, but I imagine this question comes up in med school quite a lot.. (There is a particularly kookie book called If We Can Keep A Severed Head Alive.. on this topic but it's generally regarded as 'nut literature'.)
posted by wackybrit to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
A guy named Dr. Robert White did an experiment in the 1970's (see here and here) in which he transplanted a Rhesus monkey's head onto another Rhesus monkey's body. His ultimate goal was to make such a thing possible for humans to extend the lifespans of quadraplegics (whose most common cause of death is multi-organ failure). Not to give them a body which worked, but to give them a body whose organs worked (immobility is the cardinal cause of organ failure in para- and quadraplegics), White couldn't address the immobility issue, but he at least was looking at extending lifespans. I've seen footage of the monkey head experiment, it was pretty creepy, but done in a good cause, I guess. I believe the transplanted head lived for several days.
posted by biscotti at 1:31 PM on July 15, 2004


Back when the Loompanics catalogue was as thick as a phone book it offered a book claiming that the U.S. Gov't had experimented in this area and actually kept a severed head alive and conscious in a secret laboratory basement somewhere. It sounds nutty and probably isn't true, but then again there's that law that says that if it's remotely possible it will someday occur (and my own similar belief that keeps me awake at night, that if it's remorely possible, some gov't somewhere will try to commit it on a person or animal in the name of "research").

Of course, I don't believe the disembodied head story, thank God, but on a theoretical note, wouldn't a disembodied head die from the utter physical and emotional shock of the experience? Is it possible to die of fright alone?

All of this is even supposing a machine could actually provide and maintain the immensely complex chemical balance that the human body does. It's my understanding that there is no machine as complex as the human body and brain and never will be...
posted by Shane at 1:31 PM on July 15, 2004


see
posted by scarabic at 1:36 PM on July 15, 2004


See? biscotti posts at the exact same time as I do, confirming my theory that if it can be imagined, researchers will try it.

I'm assuming the experiments were never a practical success, and the monkey went mad in the process. Personally, I'd gladly accept the inevitability of death before I'd ever want to undergo such a procedure...

Good intentions or sensationalist, unimaginable, sadistic cruelty committed on an innocent animal? Jesus. The human goddamned species...
posted by Shane at 1:36 PM on July 15, 2004


Though it's been dismissed as a hoax, this alleged Soviet film shows various animal reanimation experiments, including keeping a severed dog's head alive and receptive to stimuli. (Warning: not for the faint of heart)
posted by zsazsa at 1:38 PM on July 15, 2004


"fed through the tube that sticks in me..."
posted by bondcliff at 1:39 PM on July 15, 2004


Here's a little Wired article on recent developments.
and another review of the "If we can keep a severed head alive..."

Seems like official primary thing holding back the whole process is medical ethics. There are quite a few people (neurosuspensionists) gambling that this technique will become possible in the future.
posted by milovoo at 1:41 PM on July 15, 2004


Mrs Shelley meant it to be a cautionary tale.
posted by Shane at 1:45 PM on July 15, 2004


the U.S. Gov't had experimented in this area and actually kept a severed head alive and conscious in a secret laboratory basement somewhere. It sounds nutty and probably isn't true

I don't know about the US Government, but the monkey head was most definitely alive and conscious (unsurpisingly, it tried to bite people). Poor monkey.

It doesn't have to be a machine to keep the head alive, a vat-grown human body genetically engineered to be anencephalic would do perfectly (chop the old head off, sew the new head on), and would undoubtedly be cheaper and more effective than any machine.

As to dying of fright, assuming the head had come from a body so damaged as to be unfixable, I see no reason why the head would mind (ha) being attached to a new body. If it came from a perfectly healthy person kidnapped by black helicopters and Men In Suits and whisked off to Area 51, though...

I'm assuming the experiments were never a practical success

Actually, I believe they were considered quite promisingly successful, but further experimentation was stopped by animal welfare movements.
posted by biscotti at 1:45 PM on July 15, 2004


...a vat-grown human body genetically engineered to be anencephalic would do perfectly (chop the old head off, sew the new head on)...

Right, like I said ;-)

(Heh, biscotti, that's two jinxes we posted at exactly the same timestamp in just 9 comments!)

Give me a natural death any day. I'll never be anything but a Luddite (and an animal right's activist) on this one.
posted by Shane at 1:49 PM on July 15, 2004


Pshaw. Haven't you guys ever seen Futurama? You just stick it in a jar.
posted by LairBob at 1:52 PM on July 15, 2004


Steve Martin already proved that brains can be transplanted, so why not heads?
posted by kirkaracha at 1:54 PM on July 15, 2004


Heh. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Prophet/visonary. The William Gibson of her day.
posted by Shane at 1:57 PM on July 15, 2004


It doesn't have to be a machine to keep the head alive, a vat-grown human body genetically engineered to be anencephalic would do perfectly (chop the old head off, sew the new head on), and would undoubtedly be cheaper and more effective than any machine

It would be even cheaper to vat-grow one wicked-fat anencephalic body* with a whacking great blood supply and sew heads onto it wherever rich blood supplies near the skin. One to replace the original head and one on each femoral fer sure. Maybe a couple more in the armpits? Would those be cheaper coach-class accommodations?

Or I suppose you could just chop off the arms and legs and stick heads on the stumps if you didn't want to expend the energy to keep the arms and legs alive.

Could you hook up another few heads direct to the aorta, or would that just mean instant hemorrhagic death from the pressure?

For similar ideas, see the Greg Egan story "Appropriate Love" or similar-title.

*Or, as it would inevitably be known, Mega-Keanu.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:02 PM on July 15, 2004


But you have to think of the consequences
posted by Capn at 2:11 PM on July 15, 2004


A number of problems have been touched on:

You'll need an intact carotid sinus (and aortic sinus less so) to maintain normal blood pressure.

You'll need correct levels of oxygen and glucose, as well as amino acids.

You'll need lymphocytes, macrophages, and a number of other immune cells to prevent infections.

You'll need regulatory hormones from a multitude of organs.

Plus a number of other things I'm not even thinking about right now.
posted by gramcracker at 2:19 PM on July 15, 2004


Just an aside, on the subject of Mary Shelly: I live across the street from the main office of the California Department of Education in Sacramento. In the lobby, in large letters on the wall above the security desk, is the following quote:
It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn....
-- Mary Shelley
Which really, seriously makes me wonder if anyone who works in that office has actually read the damn book.
posted by Acetylene at 3:18 PM on July 15, 2004


whatever it is you're planning wackybrit, I beg you to reconsider
posted by gravelshoes at 4:20 PM on July 15, 2004 [2 favorites]


Forgive the off-topic comment, but I have to say that this is tied for first place for my favorite ask me question ever. The other is this one.
posted by iconomy at 6:00 PM on July 15, 2004


I think the biggest issue, once you take care of blood, hormones, etc would be the lack of a nervous system. You're cutting off the spine at a very high point and eliminating the feedback your brain has been "listening" to since day one. This probably would have severe effects on the person.

Although, if you kept enough of the spinal cord you could probably deal with this problem.

That's, of course, ignoring the psychological issue of being without a body, which seems to be the real catch.
posted by skallas at 6:36 PM on July 15, 2004


>Though it's been dismissed as a hoax, this alleged Soviet film shows various animal reanimation experiments

Holy crap, thats one freaky video. Dog kept alive by 30's technology. Its like someone had a spare sewing machine and thought it would make for a great experiment.

How is this a hoax? Looks credible and keeping blood pumping and organs working at that time wasn't some great mystery.

One person claims its a hoax, others say its real, and one site mentions it might have been faked to fool Americans.
posted by skallas at 7:47 PM on July 15, 2004


whatever it is you're planning wackybrit, I beg you to reconsider
posted by gravelshoes at 4:20 PM PST on July 15

hehe. i had the same thought.
posted by centrs at 5:52 AM on July 17, 2004


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