An Italian scientist has planned the first human head transplant for December 2017. Is this a case of misguided science, or will this be an unprecedented step forward for medical research?
I have a soft spot in my heart for the ‘mad scientist’ trope. Naturally, I went searching for news about the first head transplant.
At first, I was convinced that the story had to be entirely fake; something for the tabloids or click-bait sites. I dug deeper, expecting to find the origin of this fabrication. Yet, in fact, the first head transplant is scheduled for December 2017.The first human head transplant will take place in December 2017.Click To Tweet
In this tale, our would-be mad scientist is Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero. True to the trope, Canavero thumbs his nose at conventional methods, but he’s no villain.
The good doctor has aspirations to give mobility back to the immobile, and even though many in the scientific and medical communities scoff at his latest endeavor, they have nonetheless heard him out and have published his detailed plans in the journal Surgical Neurology International.
If all of this still sounds insane to you, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Just don’t lose your head.
Believe it or not, Canavero has a volunteer for this medical adventure: Valery Spiridonov.
Spiridonov is a Russian-born man who suffers from a rare condition known as Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease.
The disease that he bears has cost him his body from the neck down, leaving him with broken down muscles and nerves, including those all-important nerve cells in the spinal cluster that enable people to stand and walk.
Spiridonov lives his life in a wheelchair, barely able to feed himself, type, and move around with the help of a joystick. It’s a fate I can’t even begin to imagine. Yet, it’s a good indication of why he might volunteer for history’s first head transplant.
HEAVEN: Head Anastomosis for Transplantation
First, Canavero and his team will need to round up a body. They will need a young, brain-dead male patient. Unfortunately, Four Loko is illegal now, so fewer ideal candidates exist.
Once they have permission from the family of the donor, Spiridonov’s body will be cooled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit to slow down tissue atrophy, giving the team about an hour to perform the transplant before his brain dies.
Then, both patient and donor will have their heads simultaneously removed with transparent diamond blades. This is a critical juncture because of the aforementioned time limit, and it will require a custom-made crane to carefully lower Spiridonov’s head onto the donor body’s neck.
Once the head is lowered, it will be fused together with its new spinal cord using a chemical called polyethylene glycol, or PEG for short. PEG has been shown to promote the regrowth of spinal cord cells, so the hope here is that they will aid the body in accepting the transplant.
After the spine is connected, all of the muscles and blood from the donor body will have to be joined with Spiridonov’s head. The team is going to need to keep a close eye on the status of the implant, so Spiridonov is going to be kept in an induced coma for three to four weeks to make sure that everything is working as intended. While this is being monitored, implanted electrodes will be strengthening those new nerve connections in the spinal cord.
Many critics decry Canavero’s plans as unethical, going so far as to say that Canavero should be charged with murder if the patient dies on the operating table, but that doesn’t faze the neurosurgeon one bit. After all, he believes his science to be sound and he projects a lofty 90% chance of success. Further encouragement comes from successful animal head transplants such as the transplant of a monkey’s head by Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University.
Regardless of the public perception of such an endeavor, Canavero and Spiridonov are hopeful that the procedure will be a success. For Spiridonov the benefits are obvious, but if the first human head transplant is a success, the entire medical community can benefit in world-changing ways.
I’m just going to come out and say it: If the head transplant is successful, how long until we can actually put our heads on a robot body?
According to Canavero, the procedure could also potentially extend someone’s life. The basic idea is that if your donated body is younger than your original body, you are just adding years onto your life. I find that claim to be dubious, but I will admit that there is a bit of quirky logic to it.
Whatever the benefits are, we won’t know until Canavero performs the surgery. If it isn’t successful, then Canavero will have some serious explaining to do with the entire medical field.
What do you think? Is this just a crackpot theory, or could this revolutionize the field of organ donation and give a new spark of hope to paraplegics?