Sergio Canavero, controversial Italian neuroscientist and a surgeon, currently employed as a director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, claims he has perfected the technique which will allow for the first successful transplant of a human head onto the body of a healthy donor.
Quadriplegic people, like actor Christopher Reeve, people suffering from muscle-wasting conditions, even those with motor neuron disease (MND), such as Professor Stephen Hawking, could greatly benefit from this procedure.
It is not unheard of before. Canavero already proposed a similar idea two years ago. The project was called “Heaven”, shortened from Head Anastomosis Venture. Now, he is even more confident that it can be done. He will elaborate his new findings at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) annual conference taking place in Maryland this June, where he hopes to assemble a team for his project.
The first attempts of similar surgeries performed on animals in 1950s and 1970s were successful at first, but Demikhov’s two-headed dogs and White’s monkey died just days after the surgery, due to immunorejection.
Dr. Canavero is confident that powerful immunosuppressant available today represent the solution for the problems Demikhov and White have previously encountered, and that “the technical aspects are all feasible,” at this stage, as he told New Scientist. All it takes is to put them all together. He has already worked out a proposal for the procedure, abstracted this month in Surgical Neurology International.
In a nutshell, the procedure would require both, patient’s and donor’s, heads to be detached from their bodies at the same time, after which patient’s head could be attached to the other body using polyethylene glycol, stem cells, or stomach membrane as a glue that would connect the two ends of a spinal cord, consisting of a million of nerve fibers, together. After that, the patient should be put to a medically induced coma for one month, during which time s(he) would be subjected to mild electrical shocks which would help strengthen the connections in the spinal cord. The recovery process would last about a year, and would include physiotherapy and psychotherapy,
For most people, this idea still sounds bizarre enough, as it did some 40 years ago when Dr. White conducted his experiments on monkeys. We have got used to heart and kidney transplants, to brain surgeries and all sorts of plastic surgeries, but there is still something creepy about the head transplant that makes us shiver when we imagine human head detached from the body. But, for those with no other hope, this probably sounds fantastic.
This kind of surgery will never become a standard procedure due to the shortage of full body donors, but eventually, when we develop a capability to print the remaining of the human body, or to clone people, as Dr. Canavero suggests, this could become a standard life-extension procedure. All in all, thanks to the news like this one, the phrase science-fiction might soon become obsolete.
Anyway, we should cool our jets for a while. According to many respectful neurosurgeons, like Dr. William Matthews, Chairman of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaerdic Surgeons, Dr. Canavero’s timing might be a little bit off. Others, like Dr. Harry Goldsmith, a professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, one of the few surgeons who performed the operation that has allowed patients with spinal cord injury to walk again, doubt it will ever be possible.