The process of a human head transplant may sound unbelievable and grotesque, but a group of scientists are planning on doing it, and it may take place as early as next year.
The news of the first human head transplant made headlines last year when the Italian neuroscientist, Dr. Sergio Canavero, announced his plans to perform the surgery in 2017. Since his announcement he has recruited the assistance of Chinese Surgeon Dr. Xiaoping Ren and now they have found their volunteer patient for the procedure, a Russian man named Valery Spiridonov.
The reason why Spiridonov has come forward to be a part of this risky surgery is because he suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease. This is a rare and typically fatal genetic disorder that breaks down the muscles and kills nerve cells inside the brain and the spinal cord which help the body to move. Spiridonov is currently confined to a wheelchair, his arms and legs are shriveled up and his movements are limited to typing, feeding himself and controlling his wheelchair using a joystick.
Controversy Surrounding the Procedure
The medical journal The Atlantic says that Spiridonov, Canavero and Ren hope to perform the experimental and highly controversial procedure in early 2017.
Several scientists who are part of the medical community have spoken their concerns against the Ren and Canavero’s plans. They have accused the pair of promoting junk science and creating false hope for many people around the world who could possibly benefit from such a procedure, if it were possible. One critic has gone so far to say that the scientists should be charged with murder if Spiridonov happens to die, which is a highly likely outcome.
Canavero has made his plans public and published all the details for the procedure in several papers including the Surgical Neurology International journal. Where he has stated that he procedure has already been tested successfully in mice.
The Process of a Human Head Transplant
The first thing that he and his team would need in order for the transplant to be a success is a suitable donor. The surgery would require the body of a young brain-dead male patient. Once they have permission from the family, the surgeons would then set the body up for surgical decapitation.
During this time, Spiridonov would be brought in and another surgical team would go to work on cooling his body temperature down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This would cause a delay in his brain’s tissue death for around one hour, which means that the surgeons would have to work fast in order to be successful and not lose the patient.
The surgeons would then use a transparent diamond blade to remove both patients’ heads from their bodies, severing their spinal cords at the same time. Then, using a custom-made crane, they would shift Spiridonov’s head, which would be hanging by Velcro straps, onto the donor body’s neck. The two ends of the spinal cord would be fused together using a chemical known as polyethylene glycol or PEG. This chemical has been shown to promote the regrowth of cells that make up the spinal cord.
After that, the muscles and bone supply from the donor’s body would be joined with Spiridonov’s head. He would have to be kept in a coma for three to four weeks in order to prevent movement while he healed. The implanted electrodes would be used to stimulate the spinal cord in order to strengthen the brand new nerve connections.
Canavero said that the transplant, which would require a team of 80 surgeons and cost tens of millions of dollars if it is approved, would have a “90 percent plus” chance of success. But there are many members of the scientific community who strongly disagree.
Many Doctors and Scientists Feel the Transplant is Unsafe and Unethical
The head of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, Arthur Caplan, wrote in an article for Forbes last year his opinion on the procedure. “It is both rotten scientifically and lousy ethically.”
Dr. Jerry Silver, who is a neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve, has worked on spinal cord injuries and told CBS News in 2013 that the proposed transplant is “bad science, this should never happen. Just to do the experiment is unethical.” He said.
Even in the unlikely event that the transplant is a success, it does raise other ethical concerns. For example, Canavero is hoping that by transplanting Spirdonov’s head and brain onto another body, he would automatically transplant his entire self with his mind, personality, and consciousness. But it is not that simple. According to two Italian bioethicists, Anto Cartolovni and Antonio Spagnolo, Canavero’s theory goes beyond cognitive science. They believe that Spiridonov will encounter huge difficulties to incorporate the new body in his already existing body schema and his body image will have strong implications on human identity.
There is also controversy against the two surgeons due to the fact that if the operation is a failure, the procedure would take away vital organs from others who could have used the donor’s heart or liver to save their own lives.
If it is approved, the procedure would take place in China or another country that is outside of Europe or the US since according to The Atlantic the procedure would not be approved by the Western World.