Neuroscientist Wants to Perform a Human Head Transplant Within Two Years
Remember in Frankenstein, when building a person from parts of different bodies was a really great idea? Neuroscientist Sergio Canavero thinks that human head transplants are not only possible, but could happen within the next two years, if society would only get on board.
According to his new study, in which he details his proposed methods for achieving the surreal surgery, a human head transplant could be possible if the head and donor body were cooled in order to allow their cells to survive without oxygen. The surgeon would cut through the tissue in the neck, tie the major blood vessels with tubes in order to prevent hemorrhaging, and then cleanly cut both spinal cords. Then, the head is attached to the donor body and the severed ends of the spinal cords fuse together.
"I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible," Canavero told New Scientist.
According to Canavero, the patient would wake up after recovery, able to move and feel his or her face and use the same voice. With physiotherapy, the patient could be walking within a year. He believes that this surgery could be used to help quadriplegics, people whose organs are riddled with cancer, etc., and he already has several volunteers who are lining up to receive a brand-new body.
Many scientists believe that research is on Canavero's side, and there is some precedent. The first successful head transplant was performed on a monkey in 1970, after which the monkey lived for nine days until its immune system rejected the new head. Canavero insists, however, that considering our advancements in suppressing the immune system when transplanting large organs, it should theoretically be possible to surmount that obstacle.
Unsurprisingly, other scientists believe that this project is just too outlandish to be feasible. "This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely," said Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurological surgery at UC Davis. He's especially concerned about Canavero's proposed methods for helping the body recover from the surgery, which involves keeping the patient in a coma for several weeks in order to prevent movement. "I don't believe it will ever work, there are too many problems with the procedure. Trying to keep someone healthy in a coma for four weeks – it's not going to happen."
Others still agree with Canavero's reasoning, but think he's jumping the gun. "I embrace the concept of spinal fusion," said William Mathews, chairman of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons, "and I think there are a lot of areas that a head transplant can be used, but I disagree with Canavero on the timing. He thinks it's ready, I think it's far into the future."
And even if the surgery becomes physically possible, there are many, many ethical implications that would need to be resolved before actually attempting the procedure. "The real stumbling block is the ethics," said Canavero. "Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it."
Cultural differences will likely be key, as the sense of "self" is culturally dependent. While many cultures, including much of the US, likely view the brain as the locus of the "self," other cultures believe that the soul is contained in the entire body. Furthermore, like many advancements that involve extreme human modification, this surgery could create a wider divide between the rich and the poor. If the surgery ever became easier and more commonplace, the rich would theoretically be able to stave off death for as long as their brains continued to function. Not to mention, there's already a black market for organs that arguably exploits the poor, which leads to all kinds of terrifying implications if we create a demand for extra bodies.
But that being said, the surgery could also do an enormous amount of good, if it were treated with caution and properly regulated. There has been fear mongering and backlash in response to many different types of medical technology that have now helped countless people; organ donation is a comparable example.
"This is why I first spoke about the idea two years ago, to get people talking about it. If society doesn't want it, I won't do it," said Canavero. But if people don't want it in the US or Europe, that doesn't mean it won't be done somewhere else. I'm trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you."