It’s pretty scary what modern medicine can do these days. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy announced his intention to perform a full head transplant by 2015. He will put forth a proposal at a conference in the US so interested parties can get onboard and make suggestions for the procedure.
He calls it a head transplant… but it’s rather the other way around – it’s a full body transplant. Canavero wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose organs are riddled by cancer or whose nerves have degenerated beyond the point of repair (at least by today’s standards). According to him, the major hurdles like fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body’s immune system can be surpassed with the right technology and equipment, and a large enough team can make the operation happen. Is the world ready for this kind of procedure… is Canavero even right? Does the science stand up for a full head transplant?
The first head transplant took place in 1970, but it wasn’t what you’d call a success – and it wasn’t even what you’d call medicine. Doctors at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. They didn’t even try to join the spinal cords, so the monkey couldn’t even move her body, and required special assistance to breathe. Even so, the monkey only lived for a few days, until its immune system rejected the head. Sure, technology has come a long way since the 1970s, but severing a person’s head and then putting it on someone else’s body… is that even doable?
Canavero believes yes, but again, only thanks to the advancements in science. He believes that by cooling the head and the body in time he can get enough time to carry out the procedure, and the patient would be able to talk and move after the procedure is completed. Within one year, with suitable therapy, the patient could walk. However, not all are as optimistic as him.
“There is no evidence that the connectivity of cord and brain would lead to useful sentient or motor function following head transplantation,” says Richard Borgens, director of the Center for Paralysis Research at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Unsurprisingly, many surgeons are actually against this idea. Speaking to New Scientist, several surgeons actually declined discussing the project because it is too far fetched.
“This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely,” says Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, Davis, who has performed one of the few surgeries that enabled someone with a spinal cord injury to regain the ability to walk. “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.”