Which would you rather have: a new head or a new body? You may be getting that offer from your family Frankenstein in 2017. That’s when Dr. Sergio Canavero of Turin, Italy, claims his plan to attach a living human’s head to another’s donor body – or vice versa – will become a reality. Can he do it?
While it would be a first for humans, head transplants have been performed with varying degrees of success on animals. In 1908, American physiologist Charles Guthrie grafted a dog’s head onto another dog’s full body, creating a two-headed dog, albeit with only one head functioning. In the 1950s, Russian scientist and transplant pioneer Vladimir Demikhov successfully created functioning two-headed dogs - in one case, the transplanted head reportedly bit an assistant.
In 1970, scientists at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, led by Dr. Robert White, successfully attached a monkey’s head to another’s body, with the head regaining some ability to smell, taste, hear, and see. Experiments creating two-headed rats were conducted in Japan in 2002.
In a recent paper published in Surgical Neurology International, Canavero outlined his plans to put together a team of neurological surgeons at a conference in June to begin serious work on the project. Canavero’s plan involves cooling the donor head to keep it alive without oxygen, then fusing it to the recipient body’s spinal cord with polyethylene glycol. Muscles and arteries would be attached while the patient is kept in a prolonged coma. Upon exiting the coma, Canavero predicts the head will speak with its original voice and the person would be able to walk within a year.
When asked about the ethics of such a transplant, Canavero said this:
If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it, in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else.
Canavero is destined to be compared to Victor Frankenstein, but he does has some legitimate science and animal experiments to back him up. Can he successfully transplant a human head? Can he do it by 2017?