Maybe we don’t have flying cars yet (or maybe we do), but the future has never seemed closer — at least as far as medicine and technology are concerned.
What if I told you that just a few weeks ago, the first successful head transplant was performed on humans? Or that you could make yourself superhuman and alter your DNA with a special vaccine? Or that you could expand your memory by implanting electronics in your brain?
Mind-blowing, right? These breakthroughs are nothing short of spectacular on their own, but viewed as part of a bigger picture, they offer us a glimpse into future that’s equally bright and terrifying, and definitely unexpected.
Genetic engineering for the masses
Hollywood certainly didn’t see this one coming. Sci-fi movie clichés often depict CEOs of evil mega-corporations and the ultra-rich as those uniquely privileged to have access to the best treatments that modern medicine can offer.
But one man, Josiah Zayner, may have proven otherwise. At a biotech conference in San Francisco in early October, he injected himself with a mixture containing a molecule that disables the gene responsible for inhibiting muscle growth.
“This will modify my muscle genes to give me bigger muscles,” he said after the injection. The concoction in his bloodstream relies on CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) — a game-changing genetic-engineering technique that uses Cas9, an enzyme capable of cutting DNA at specific spots with scissor-like precision, which is then used in editing the genome.
While I could go on about the dangers of injecting substances into your body without the proper training (or equipment) and how his experiment would most likely yield no results, or cause an infection or worse, what Zayner did is part of an interesting tendency — a democratization of modern medical techniques. Although they still belong in the realm of biohacking, once perfected, gene-altering kits could be made commercially available. For a few hundred dollars, you might receive a life-altering treatment in the comfort of your own home. This is precisely what Zayner wants, and why his company, The ODIN, offers these kits.
If you’re lost and don’t know where to start, the company offers a handy CRISPR guide for all your DIY gene-editing needs. Needless to say, I see Zayner (who has a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics, in case you’re wondering) as a pioneer of things to come, and strongly suggest to be careful when using any products you find on his website. (Beer that glows in the dark, thanks to genetically modified yeast, sounds quite interesting, however.)
May I offer you a head transplant?
For some, gene therapy isn’t the answer. A disease may have progressed too far and ravaged the body. In such cases, treatments usually boil down to palliative care and appreciating what time we have left. Then again, you could try to have your head attached to another body.
This seems like something out of a sci-fi or horror novel, but that’s precisely what Italian doctor Sergio Canavero is trying to accomplish. His goal is to provide this option to people who’ve run out of other options. Canavero has been at it for quite a while now, with questionable results.
In 2015, this controversial Italian surgeon announced that human head transplantation could be possible. What followed was a series of surgeries during which he transplanted the head of a monkey to another monkey’s body (without attaching the spine), then another few procedures on other animals (a dog and a rat), during which he claims to have attached the spinal cords.
However, the papers documenting his scientific escapades are lacking crucial details, which made the scientific community skeptical. His final claim is to have attached a head of one human cadaver to another donor body. Although this isn’t exactly groundbreaking (both head and body are lifeless), it could be a sign of things to come: a full-on head transplant is “imminent.”
Canavero says he has found a volunteer (an unnamed patient from China) who is supposed to be kept in a drug-induced coma, while Canavero and his crew separate his head from his neck and attach it to a donor body in a 24-hour-plus complex, high-risk, never-before-accomplished surgery.
The operation may cost the patient his life, or the new body provided for him could turn out to be even less durable than his current one. Or, just possibly, Canavero could succeed, which would create new possibilities in science, technology and medicine. His experiment could even provide invaluable insights that could later be used for creating real human-machine interfaces and ushering in an era of cyborgs — people whose only human parts are their heads, attached to artificial bodies.
But let’s not get too far a-head of ourselves. (Ha.) As with most of other breakthroughs, there’s a darker side to this one: The procedure could open the doors for new ways of human exploitation and body trafficking.
Finally, another stop on the road of human betterment is the “memory prosthesis,” a device comprising electrodes that can mimic the processes in the human brain when it’s processing memories.
After running tests, researchers have found that test subjects outfitted with the device have improved their performance on memory tests by 30 percent.
The prosthesis sends a small electronic discharge through a number of regions in the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. This is what the human brain does on its own: When faced with outside world stimulus, the brain responds with a series of electronic impulses. As they pass through the hippocampus, some of these impulses get converted into a signal that is then “saved” in a long-term memory repository. The electrode device simply replicates the already existing pattern, facilitating the transfer and conversion of the signal.
The device is still in the early stages of development, but once perfected it could help patients suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders. Researchers say it could also be used to enhance other brain activities such as vision or movement, or to “imprint” new memories on the brain, similar to the way it was done in the sci-fi classic
So there you have it. What do head transplants, brain implants and DIY gene-splicing have in common? Are they early signs of a dystopian future, in which the masses are ruled by genetically modified cyborgs and body snatchers? Or the opposite — tell-tale signs of a new era of prosperity and increased longevity, an age where every individual will have an opportunity to unlock his or her own potential? What do you think?
Please let me know in the comments below!