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What can you learn from giving an insect a total head transplant?

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Transplanting heads seems like a far-fetched idea, but the procedure has been performed on insect test subjects by scientists since at least 1923. Biologist Walter Finkler reported back then said he successfully transplanted the heads of insects such as water boatmen, meal worms and common butterflies - both in adult and grub form. What was learned at that time? 

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Finkler's experiments were very simple. He'd grab two insects, cut off their heads with sharp scissors, and switch them. The fluid that the insects themselves leaked cemented the new heads in place. In time, the insects "healed up" and doing whatever their new heads told them to do.

Finkler claimed that the heads of female insects on male bodies continued female behavior, and the head of one species of butterfly kept the habits of its own species, even when its body belonged to a different species. Scientists found this to be incredibly per verse.

Another scientist, J T Cunningham, wrote he tried the experiment with meal-worms. Although the meal-worms seemed to live through the operation, only the bodies were responsive to stimulus. The heads appeared dead. To Cunningham it looked as if the entire experiment showed that insect bodies could live on unguided, rather than that they'd react to new brains.

The transplants today are taken quite seriously, enough to be a regular part of experiments. In a number of experiments, insects are either decapitated or transplanted, and the change in their bodily functions is observed.

"For example, kissing bugs often spread Chagas disease when they feed on humans, and so their metabolism is closely studied. Scientists have studied the kissing bug process of accumulation and processing of carbohydrates. They check on how the brain affects this by beheading some insects, transplanting heads on others, and seeing which processes are either encouraged, arrested, or reversed by the introduction of the new head," Esther Inglis-Arkell writes.

"A similar process is used when studying the changes in the gut cells of larvae. In most cases, head removal halts development and metabolism, while transplanted heads will overturn the cessation and keep the process going."

The notion of head transplants for mammals, or even humans is brought up in the media. While the ethics of experiments on humans are very different from the ethics of experiments on insects, it's worth bearing in mind that head and brain transplants aren't as unheard of as one might think.

"And they've taught us a lot," Inglis-Arkell adds wryly. "If insects ever do mutate into huge monsters, we deserve everything they do to us."

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