by Helena G. Ederveen, The Official Guide to Health Education
The idea of brain transplants have long been the staple of pulp science fiction. Leaving aside for the moment the spiritual questions of the soul and the heart (i.e. emotions) there are two basic parts of our existence – the mind and the body.
Medical science has made huge strides in curing the body of disease and prolonging life. Soon we will reach the stage were the only cause of death will be age related degeneration of the muscle and tissue. And even here it may not be the end of the road – every year we find the transplanting of more and more organs becoming daily realities.
And if that was not enough, artificial organs like man made heart pumps and eyes are going to be realities one day – no one disputes this any longer. So the body is protected and will keep increasing its life span – up to a point. A philosophical debate has already started about what happens when the body is more man made than natural – will we still be human. But let us leave that for the future.
For the present, as our life spans keep increasing, the problem is what do we do about our brains. The brain is the one organ that cannot be replaced either through a transplant or by a man made organ. Okay, nothing is impossible with science but as of now its not even within the realms of possibility.
And anyway even if a brain could be transplanted, who, not what, is left after the transplant? The issue is that our brains are the essence of who we are – everything that makes you an individual with all your faults and greatness is encapsulated in the brain (no metaphysical arguments please!). If a new brain is put into your body, you are a different person. You, as you are today, will cease to exist and while what was once your body may continue to function, it will no longer be yours because it will be control by another brain which means the body belongs to another person.
What this means is that the only way we can think of prolonging our existence and keeping it worthwhile – in other words remaining who we are – is by finding ways of rejuvenating the brain. But the one organ that cannot be replaced is also the most complex one we have. The brain is made up of cells. How many cells is still a matter of debate.
The number of neurons in the brain could be anything from 10 billion to 200 billion. And the number of neurological support cells could be anything from 5 to 100 times the number of neurons. So the number of cells could be anything from half a trillion or more. And they are all aging all the time.
As the brain ages it loses its ability to regenerate its cells and to absorb new information. This is because as the brain ages, it loses its stem cell supply which the aging body cannot produce.
That is why so much importance is being given to stem cell therapy as the answer to the problem of rejuvenating the brain.
Rejuvenating the brain will require highly advanced systems of delivering gene therapy and also DNA reprogramming of all the aging brain cells to enable them to once again be able to repair themselves and return to the level of activity and the resulting mental ability they had when they were younger.
Rejuvenating the brain is a strange and wonderful experiment. Will it work? As of now researchers has injected aged mice with human stem cells and have found evidence of neurological regeneration. It will take years and maybe a few generations before the technology is perfected to the state where it is safe for humans to use. But when that happens, the brain can be rejuvenated to carry on working as long as the body, with its transplants and man made organs.