Whole Earth Review, Summer, 1988
ATTEMPTS TO KEEP SEVERED HEADS ALIVE AREN'T NEW, AND THEY AREN'T PLEASANT. For example, there's a report of a French scientist in the 1800s trying to connect the severed heads of executed prisoners, fresh from the guillotine, to the bodies of dogs. From 1910 through 1964, at least a dozen research teams in Europe, America, Israel, and the Soviet Union tried various types of animal head grafts, head transplants, brain transplants, head perfusions, and brain perfusions. Very little came of them. For example, in a set of experiments done by a team of neurosurgeons in Wisconsin during the 1960s, some dog heads were severed from their bodies and placed on blood processing machinery. They continued to generate brain waves after the spinal cord was severed, but only for about four hours. During that time, the severed heads were under heavy sedation, and they never regained consciousness after the operation started. In addition, the brain waves steadily tapered off during those four hours, which effectively means that those operations didn't prolong life; they only prolonged the process of dying.
Then, in 1971, a team of neurosurgeons in Cleveland transplanted several monkey heads onto the bodies of other monkeys and then revived the transplanted heads to a state of full consciousness for up to 36 hours. People might argue over semantics and technicalities, but those severed heads were conscious and "alive" according to any reasonable definition.
Both of those surgical teams stopped working on intact heads (with eyes, mouths, etc.) less than a year after they started, and they turned to research on isolated brains with no sensory organs and no ability to communicate. That was an interesting decision, apparently based on several factors. On a purely technical level, it's cleaner and more precise to study what's going on in an isolated brain if the blood doesn't also circulate through other types of tissue.
However, the scientific factors aren't the only reasons those teams decided to stop working on intact heads. One of the neurosurgeons told me he didn't feel ready to address the ethical issues of keeping severed animal heads alive for sustained periods, What would happen if he proved he could keep them alive for weeks or perhaps even months? What would he do if some of his patients, who were dying with no other hope, wanted the operation? He simply didn't want to confront those issues. Another neurosurgeon said it would be disturbing - the word he used was "creepy" - to have a severed animal head in the lab, able to look around and see what's going on, probably in a state of bewildered discomfort if not outright pain. However, he wasn't bothered by having isolated brains in his lab, since he thought the brains were in a deepsleep state caused by sensory deprivation, rather than feeling pain.
Several research teams are still working on isolated brains, but to the best of my knowledge, no one is experimenting on intact severed heads. Or if they are, they're doing it secretly.
Everything I learned suggested that it's possible to keep a head not just "alive" (generating brain waves), but completely conscious after it's been severed from its body.
No one can safely predict how long a severed head could live if a research team used the best equipment and techniques that are available now. However, science and probability point toward longer and longer survival periods. Every cause of death will appear as a specific problem, and scientists have proven many times that if they can clearly define a technical problem and break it down into detailed equations, molecules, and reactions, they can usually solve that problem, Even working with intact bodies that are totally overrun with terminal disease, doctors can often delay death for so long that eventually, they must make a deliberate deci sion to stop prolonging life. If they were working with a severed head attached to predictable, controllable mechanical parts instead of complex, diseased organs, they might be able to keep the head alive longer than they can keep an entire diseased body alive.
It's hard to really understand what it would mean to keep a severed head alive. A head with its eyes wide open, severed at the neck, mounted on top of a cabinet covered with dials and gauges. Able to see and hear anything. Able to talk and control voice-actuated computers which, in turn, would allow it to control robotic arms, transporation devices, and any other machines that can be controlled by computer, The possibilities are so bizarre that they seem unreal, like a horror movie. It hasn't happened yet, but it's going to happen, soon, How soon? I don't know. It might be several years. But then, it might not; researchers could be a lot closer than most people realize. A research team that specializes in experimental surgery could assemble the blood-processing system (all of the components are readily available) and try the operation on a lab animal in less than two weeks. If you don't believe that, try to figure out why it would take longer than two weeks to hook up some tubes to several pieces of equipment and then cut up an animal. That's how close we could be.