Sunday, May 21, 2017

You went full Rotwang, man. Never go full Rotwang

"Nanoblade"?! Wait, what, this sounds like a weapon that a post-humanist Ninja character might wield in a really bad Manga.

You look lost. Perhaps I should go back to the cortico-trunco-reticulo-proprio-spinal pathway (CTRPS). Or even further back.

Neuroskeptic was blogging just the other day about Sergio Canavero, who has a vision... a vision of transplanting heads from body to body... or as it may be, of transplanting bodies. But NS buried the lede, which is wasteful. Here at the Riddled Research Laboratory we prefer to stage a fake burial for the lede, in fact keeping it in a locked back room on life support, to use it as a donor for organ transplants.

So Canavero edited a special edition of Surgical Neurology International and went Full-Metal Rotwang, shaking his fists at a disbelieving world and shouting "You fools! I'll show you all!"

"Hysteria", "misbegotten dogma"... this is not the usual register of academic discourse, even in editorial advertisements, but then again, SNI is not your conventional scientific journal. It could best be described as "The kind of journal that invites a total reality-divorcé to edit special issues".

Now this "cortico-trunco-reticulo-proprio-spinal pathway", it is not recognised in textbooks, and indeed seems to be unknown outside the circle of Canavero and his supporters. It is (I gather) a component of the spinal cord. Most of the spine is white matter, afferent and efferent bundles of myelinated nerve axons, analogous to insulation-wrapped wiring, and Canavero does not believe that he can restore their function after joining the two spinal stumps in a head transplant. But that's alright, because the white matter doesn't actually have a function (its supposed importance is a 'previously misbegotten dogma'). It seems that motor and sensory functions are in fact served by the short, unmyelinated neurons of the butterfly-shape of grey matter within the spinal cord; the fools of the neurology establishment regard this as local circuitry, but this is where the CTRPS resides, and where Canavero can graft severed neurons back together.

A 'nanoblade' is required, one honed to nanometric atom-level fineness: sharp enough to bifurcate cells with minimal trauma to their membranes and contents. This may be the same as the GEMINotome "ultra‑sharp nanometer‑grade blade" -- aspirational cutlery for which Canavero's Chinese collaborators have developed the name if not the technology.

A second component of the regeneration protocol is electrical stimulation to help weld together the bisected halves of matching neurons from head and body. Canavero is aware of the parallels with Mary Shelley's novel, but he revels in them, like Gene Wilder's titular character in Young Frankenstein embracing his destiny.

If other laboratories are unable to replicate the results, they had probably tapped into the wrong kind of lightning strike to power the apparatus.

The third crucial component is the 'fusogen' to knit together the ragged edges of the severed membranes of donor and recipient hemi-neurons. This proves to be poly-ethyl glycol, infused with fractal nanoribbon graphene -- so it glows green in the dark, of course. Also to conduct the electricity ("in order to improve and accelerate the recovery of function, we tested PEG enhanced by these electrical conducting nanoribbons. PEG‑GNRs would achieve both membrane fusion, facilitate initial electrical conduction, and then act as a scaffold for sprouting fibers").

So there is re-vivifying electricity, and Daring Experiments that will Confound the Nay-Saying Fools of the Academy, you can see why the Mad Scientist Anti-Defamation League are eager to offer Dr Canavero their assistance. But wait, also there is an underground laboratory, where his South Korean colleague C.-Yoon Kim tested the procedure on rodents and dogs and monkeys!!

Alas, most post-operative rats were drowned "during a storm that filled the underground lab". Presumably the minions were watching for lightning strikes when they should have paid more attention to the water pumps. LESSON: locate next laboratory in a non-flooding mountain-top castle.

Kim's trials were not yet transplants, but proof-of-concept tests for severing and repairing spinal cords. That is to say, Kim claimed to have dissected each laboratory animal down to the neck vertebrae and split open one vertebra, so he could hook up the spinal cord and sever it. Before replacing the stumps in the vertebra, daubed with PEG, with such sub-micron precision that the two halves of each grey-matter neuron were adjacent again and the sliced membranes were contiguous, so that the PEG could fuse them -- allowing full restoration of mobility and sensation within days ("The two stumps of the spinal cord of the rats were kept in mechanical proximity by simple hyperextension of the head").

Details of the surgery ignore the earlier invocations of nanoblades and GEMINotomes, and specify a standard #11 scalpel. Which at the cellular level is about as sharp as a car bumper, crushing cells into oblivion rather than bisecting them; Kim might as well have invited Mrs Spat to sever the rats' spines, or used a cable.* To put it another way: none of this ever happened.

Kim claims affliations to Konkuk University's School of Medicine, and to Seoul National University's College of Veterinary Medicine, but the e-address he uses is

* Bonus recapitation:

If you stare with horrified fascination at Canavero's lurid fantasies and cannot look away, well, there's more!
Imagine what effect might ensue from a young donor body (say, in her 20’s) nourishing with her young blood 24/24, 7/7 the head of an aging body recipient! Yes, life extension on a level that simple, periodic transfusions of young blood have no way to match.
The real concern that needs to be addressed in this letter is whether one day HEAVEN is spun off as a cure for transsexualism (TS). Considering the dearth of donors for many needing new organs, this might seem like pushing the envelope. Yet, it makes sense starting the debate now.
To the casual eye, TSs come in two varieties: male-to-female (MtF) and female-to-male. In this case, common sense would suggest gender reassignment HEAVEN transplant the head of an MtF subject on a female body and vice versa.
No reference here to the pioneering research of Heinlein [1970] and Reiner [1984]; I am disappoint.

"A Call to Arms" is not a treatise on limb transplants (alas), but another SNI Editorial, in which Canavero goes Full Rotwang (again), complains that billionaire philanthropists aren't giving him any money, and speculates on the psychological hang-ups that motivate his critics.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Maybe Canavero has access to Mi-Go brain cylinder technology.

Also, nanoblade reminds me of Gibson's monofilament whip...

Smut Clyde said...

Monofilament decapitation has a long history in SF before Gibson (as he would be the first to acknowledge). The first appearance that I can remember was a story in a 1963 'Analog' ("Thin Edge", Garrett). The story is stuffed full of the usual libertarian / Ubermensch philosophy that Campbell expected from his authors, but there were Schoenherr illustrations to make up for that.

Smut Clyde said...

Further time-wasting reveals relevant TV Tropes entries -- Sharpened to a Single Atom, Razor Floss, Diagonal Cut.

Trevor said...

And of course, poor Nessus the puppeteer losing a head.

Smut Clyde said...

The TVTropes collective have 'Ringworld' covered.