A Psychiatrist’s Perspective on Head Transplantation Surgery: Who will the the Post-operative Patient be?
Within the coming months, a team of doctors will attempt the first-ever human head transplant (more aptly called a body transpant). In the operation, the fresh body of a deceased man will be surgically attached to the head of a man whose body is wasting away from a physically debilitating incurable disease. Despite the well-known difficulties with reattaching the spinal cord, the team believes that recent advances in medical technology could allow the operation to be successful.
While we pray for the success of this unprecedented procedure, the mere idea of a body transplant raises the question of who the post-operative patient will be. Will it be the person who has the head? will it be the person who had the body? or will it be a combination of the two?
The answer is that it will be the person who is alive and receiving the transplant. Although this may seem intuitively obvious to some, it deserves some explanation.
A human being is more than a sack of chemical reactions and neurological reflexes; a person is a living being who is clothed with the flesh. The relationship between the person and the body can be compared to the relationship between a driver and a car. The living person is the driver, and the living body is the car. In this sense, we can think of the heart as the engine of the car, the legs as the wheels, the tongue as the horn, and so on.
Note, however, that in order to drive the car, the driver must be in the driver’s seat. The brain is the driver’s seat of the body; it’s the place from where the entire body can be operated. That’s what makes the brain indispensable. Without an intact brain, the person cannot operate the body anymore than a driver can operate a car without being able to turn the steering wheel, press the gas peddle, or even turn on the ignition.
Of course, there are many persons who have significant brain damage, but as long as the brain is at least partially functioning, it can remain hospitable to the person. However, there comes a point at which the brain (or the body as a whole) becomes so nonfunctional that the person leaves the brain like a driver leaving the driver’s seat of an inoperable car. Once that happens, the body dies because the living person has “passed away“ and is no longer sustaining the life of the brain or the body.
That’s what prevents doctors from being able to perform brain transplants even though the operation would be technically easier than a body transplant. Of course, a surgeon could physically transplant the brain, but unless the person is engaged with the brain, neither the brain or the body can remain alive.