The weird idea of transplanting human heads is becoming close to reality. In a recently published article in the journal Surgical Neurology International, Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero writes about his success in doing so on dogs. Dr. Canavero, along with colleagues in South Korea, China and the United States leads a anastromosis venture, HEAVEN, project to develop the techniques needed to conduct head transplants in humans.
The idea of human head transplants may seem out of the pages of Frankenstein, though it has significant benefit to those who are paralyzed and trapped in bodies that do not work. Experiments began on mice and rats, progressed to monkey and dogs and are all set to begin on human corpses. The success on the dog experiment has led to this next phase.
The idea is not as farfetched as one might think, considering that similar experiments were used in the 1800’s on the corpses of hanged criminals. Modern technology offers real hope. There are patients willing to undergo such a procedure if it offers them the hope of a new, functional body.
Doctor Canavero says,
Actually, the list of patents is so long that we can’t actually begin to give you all the names, including several patients from England.
The spinal cord in the human body has its challenges. The spinal cord is comprised of thousands of neurons and these would need to be meticulously joined in order to attach a head to a body. Precise attachment is necessary in order to create electricity-conducting pathways to send nerve impulses through the body to make it functional.
The team is depending on injecting polyethylene glycol (PEG) in the gap between the cut ends of the spinal cord. This technique has been proven successful in the animal experiments. Dr. Canavero claims that the technique, dubbed GEMINI spinal cord fusion, will also work in humans to fuse the ends of the spinal cords together.
Dr. Canavero says,
While of course these results are in need of duplication, there can be no doubt that this new batch of data confirm that a spinal cord, once severed, can be refused with useful behavioral recovery. Despite these exciting animal experiments, the proof of the pudding rests in human studies.
The next step, set to begin next year will use the bodies of brain dead organ donors. The spinal cord will be severed and treated to see if it could be repaired. The idea is to use electricity to stimulate the nervous system in the bodies to test whether the spinal cord connections work. Only after a lot of practice and an assured 90% success rate are achieved, will the operation be conducted on a living human patient.
The surgical techniques are quite complex and a bit macabre. First, there will need to be a fresh body from a brain dead transplant donor. The head of this donor and the head of the patient will be simultaneously severed with an ultra-sharp blade. The patient’s head will be attached to the donor’s body using PEG to fuse both ends of the spinal cord together. The muscles and blood supply would be stitched together while the patient is placed in a medically-induced coma to allow time to heal. While in a coma, the patient will be given small electrical shocks to stimulate the spinal cord and strengthen connections. After time to heal, patient will be brought out of the coma. Hopefully, the patient will be able to move, feel their face and have their same voice. However, the patient will undergo intensive psychological support in dealing with a new body. Also, powerful immunosuppressant drugs will be administered for life to prevent organ rejection.
The first volunteer has been selected. Valery Spiridonov of Russia is wheelchair-bound with a genetic disease, Werdnig-Hoffmann. He is a 30-year old computer programmer who says,
My motivation is about improving my own life conditions and to go to the stage where I will be able to take care of myself, where I will be independent from other people.
Dr. Canavero says,
The first humans to receive this sort of head transplant will not be Valery, but we will just be performing the first on brain dead organ donors, so the first live head transplant will come about somewhere where we’ll be able to transfer the head of a brain dead donor onto the body of a decapitated, brain dead organ donor. So only after extensive cadaveric rehearsals and this final proof of principle surgery on brain dead organ donors we will move on to Valery.
This endeavor is not without its skeptics and detractors. Many scientists don’t see the success in animals as transferable to humans
Dr. Hunt Batjer, president-elect of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons told CNN,
I would not wish this on anyone. I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.
Only time will tell.