White was raised in Duluth, Minnesota, by his mother and an aunt.
In the 1970s, after a long series of experiments, White performed a transplant of one monkey head onto the body of another monkey, although it lasted just a few days. These operations were continued and perfected to the point where the transplanted head could have survived indefinitely on its new body, though the animals were in fact euthanized. The problem with this operation is that since no one currently knows how to repair nerve damage which would arise when the spinal cord is severed during the head transplant process, the recipient would become paralyzed from the neck down.
The transplanted heads can see, think, feel, and taste and in short can function in all the ways that they could when attached to their original body, they simply cannot control their new one. The importance of head transplants is that if performed in humans they have the potential to save lives from almost any disease. Anything that afflicts the non-head regions of the body, be it otherwise inoperable non-brain cancer, multiple organ failure, heart disease, diabetes, etc will be removed if the head is transplanted to a non-afflicted body. If one is paralyzed already and has these illnesses, then nothing much would really change when the head is transplanted. If one is not paralyzed, then one would have to decide whether to live paralyzed until a cure for paralysis can be developed, or to die of one's affliction. The bodies could be obtained through organ donors as is already the case with heart, lung, and kidney transplants. See the articles titled whole-body transplant and head transplant for more information.
White has also pioneered now widely-accepted spinal cord and brain cooling techniques, which now allow for therapeutic procedures not previously possible. For 40 years, he was a neurological surgery professor for Case Western Reserve University medical school, but is now retired.
Head transplants have been carried out on dogs and monkeys, more successfully on the former. The measure of success is both the length of time the animal survives after the operation, and the extent to which cerebral function is resumed. While Charles Guthrie, the American physiologist, was the first to “create” a two-headed dog by transplantation in 1908, it was the Russian, Vladimir Demikhov in the 1950’s, who produced the two headed dog, possessed of full cerebral function. The transplanted head of Guthrie’s dog only retained the most primitive movements. The key difference between the strategies of the two doctors was the time allowed to elapse between decapitation and attachment of the donor head to the recipient body. For this time period, the head is without oxygen supply, and the neurons are at risk of dying, thus debilitating brain function. Although Demikhov’s surgery was successful, after 6 days his two-headed dog died.
In 1962, he achieved a world’s-first by successfully removing an animal’s brain and keeping the brain alive. In 1964, he transplanted the brain of one dog into the neck of another dog, and connected it to the recipient dog’s blood supply, monitoring the brain activity with electrodes. His aim was to successfully keep the brain alive outside of a skull, but the issue of actually proving consciousness eluded him. In 2001, it was revealed to the world that his quest had led him to transplanting the head of a monkey to another’s body, deemed successful since the transplanted head could exhibit facial movements, and react to stimuli. However it was, of course paralyzed.
While some deemed his operation “grotesque” he maintained the next step was to carry out the same on humans. He pointed out that in the case of people with irreparable damage to their body or organs, the replacement of their entire body would be ideal. It would offer them a means to prolong their lifespan beyond what is currently possible. The transplant would offer options to those individuals, who would rather be quadriplegic than dead.
The opposing argument was outlined by Dr Stephen Rose, director of Brain and Behavioral Research at the Open University who remarked; “This is medical technology run completely mad and out of all proportion to what’s needed”. Since the donor head is not connected to the recipient body except by blood supply, he feels it cannot be called a true transplant. There is no real interaction with the recipient body.
Currently, head transplantation cannot be carried out successfully on the spinal cord, thus the individual is condemned to quadriplegia. If this barrier could be overcome, then, head transplantation would offer endless possibilities and opportunities. At the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of California, Irvine, spinal cords in mice have been shown to be repaired to some degree by stem cells. Mice which were partially paralyzed by the spinal damage, could walk again after treatment. Many scientists, including Dr. Rose, believe we could be better served by researching stem cells (the cells which can be induced to become any cell type in the body), than by attempting large scale and complex head transplant operations. There is potential for treatment of spinal damage and muscular disabilities using stem cells. New, functioning neurons have been shown to be capable of being grown in the human hippocampus. And, in June of this year, researchers at Berkley University, California have been able to revive the repair ability of muscle tissue in old mice. They achieved this by altering the biochemical pathway by which stem cells repair damaged tissue.
Quite aside from the problem of spinal cord repair, allowing a donor head to communicate effectively with the recipient body, there is the issue of transplant rejection to be considered, whereby the transplanted organ fails to be accepted by the recipient body leading to an immune attack on the organ. The extent of post operative treatment which could be required to allow an individual undergoing head transplantation to survive, may be too great to render the surgery a benefit at all.