‘What would happen if you didn’t have a head’? This isn’t a comment on the recent election fiasco, the introduction to a gruesome horror movie, or an angry storybook command from the Queen of Hearts. Instead, it could be an illustration of an important approach in neuroscience research.
There are tales of survival for several minutes after beheading by guillotine, and headless chickens really can run around. The position of the cut is an important factor. The stem at the base of the brain governs essential processes such a breathing and heart beat. If this is intact then survival and even movement may be possible.
If strictly speaking a head is not entirely necessary, in its absence what would we be missing? Even if nutrition could be got in another way, it would be difficult to obtain food as it would not be possible to locate or recognise it. You could forget about anything more sophisticated like communicating with others or making decisions.
Neuroscientists use a similar idea when trying to understand how the brain works, by looking at what happens when it goes wrong. An example is stroke patients with damage to one or more brain areas who have difficulty with some aspects of language but not others.
However, establishing the exact role of particular regions is more difficult than it might seem. One reason for this is that some recovery can happen as different pathways take over the function, demonstrating the flexibility of the brain’s connections and their importance in giving capacity to learn.
As few people or animals have survived very long without a head, less is known about its relationship with the rest of the body. This is an important topic to consider as the possibility of a full head transplant comes closer.