How Would Human Brain Transplants Change The World?

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Ben Welton
Written by Ben Welton

The human brain is the most complex part of our biological make-up. And the brain transplant has long been held as a final frontier in medical science. So, what if this incredibly complicated procedure was an everyday norm? How would the world be different if brain transplants were available at every hospital?

How Would Brain Transplants Change the World?

The human brain is everybody’s great repository of wisdom, rationality, and knowledge. An incredible organ and vital component of human biology, it’s responsible for how we think, feel, behave and communicate. However, our brains can also house some serious and life-threatening diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease – which affects up to fifty million people worldwide – and cancerous brain tumours, which canlead to a terminal diagnosis.

So, while the brain remains absolutely essential for life, it can also prove extremely problematic. And given that many brain conditions can be fatal, curing them has long been an ambition for neuroscientists, and is seen by many as one of the last great challenges for modern medicine. So, what if it were possible to surgically implant a healthy brain into the head of someone else? How would the world be different if brain transplants were the norm?

Of course, brain transplants have long played a role in speculative fiction, notably since Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was published in 1818.In film, 1962’s “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” took the transplant story further, with its tale of a troubled doctor committing murder to provide his wife with a new body – having kept her disembodied head alive in his lab. The American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft dabbled with brain swap stories too, and most recently, the award-winning horror movie “Get Out” boasts a nefarious brain transplant plot.

So, given that brain transplants are usually synonymous with horror, would this futuristic process actually provide any benefits for humanity at large? A full brain transplant isn’t currently possible. But similar, experimental procedures have been conducted on animals, and smaller scale brain grafts have been performed. For example, a 2014 study by the University of California found that Alzheimer’s patients couldpartially regain some memories if they were injected with new brain cells.

So, while specialists are quick to quash any speculation that we could effectively growwhole new brains, research and technology might seemingly head in that direction. Already, stem cell engineering has encouraged scientists to consider using stem cells to combat the spread of dementia and other diseases. If those strategies are developed further still, then who knows the extent to which we might hone and shape our cerebrum. However, the research faces clear ethical and political problems, especially regarding international views and policies on abortion – as the stem cells currently required are often taken from aborted foetuses.

Should fullbrain transplants become the norm, solving this type of problem would be crucial – Because just where would all the transplantable brains come from? And once the transplant has been conducted, who exactly is the person emerging off of the operating table? In fact, some scientists prefer to describe these hypothetical procedures as ‘Whole Body Transplants’ – thereby shifting the emphasis onto the brain receiving a new body, rather than the body receiving a new brain.

But, sidestepping the reams of red tape that transplants would undoubtedly require, the actual applications of the practice could be massive. Besides helping to cure or at least diminish the impact of neurological diseases, brain transplants could also mean that serious spinal injuries are far more treatable. To fully reconnect a brain to another body, surgeons would need to have developed an unprecedented understanding of the spine – so fusing broken backs might also be achievable.

Away from the physical effects, brain transplants would also surely alter our entire understanding of emotion, personality and intelligence. There is some speculation that if someone were to donate their brain for a transplant, they’d be incapable of comprehending the experience once they’re re-awoken – such is the strength of connection between our personal brains and our personal bodies. Imagine waking up to flex someone else’s fingers, scratch someone else’s skin and blink someone else’s eyelids… At best it’d feel weird, at worst it’d drive you insane.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether brain swaps would make us smarter? Especially given growing suggestions that worldwide IQ levels areplummeting. If brain transplants could be used to improve global intellect and better international IQ scores, then could that also mean a reduction in crime, as part of the growth of a more advanced civilization? Would we solve problems faster? And live more efficiently? Maybe, but there are plenty more potentially disturbing trade-offs.

Drawing upon historic links with the German Nazi Party and fascist politics, the term ‘Eugenics’ has been brandished at some brain transplant advocates – with opponents suggesting that the surgical possibilities could soon get out of hand. There’s already a massive genetic engineering program taking place in China, run by BGI Shenzhen and reportedly backed by the government in Beijing, where advanced science enables some wealthy families to pick and choose the best qualities and physical traits for their unborn children. While the prospect of designer babies is reportedly gathering pace in the West too, with parents pushing for hand-selected, high-spec, super-kids.

If brain transplants became commonplace, the mounting ethical issues could skyrocket. After all, the person, group or government capable of carrying out such ground-breaking procedures could quickly become tyrannical. They’d be able to shape health, behaviour and personality to almost unimaginable extents, and wield a level of control like never before. So, who would regulate transplant procedures? And who would regulate the regulators? We’d clearly have to proceed with caution.

However, if the ethics were managed correctly, the prospect of brain transplants brings huge optimism in some fields. If we achieve the procedure in the future, it would surely mean that our knowledge of the brain will have reached all new levels. Diseases of the brain could become more manageable, and our understanding of mental health could be vastly improved. Crime rates could fall, and we might even become cleverer. So, the world would be a very different place.