Do you know someone who would lose their head if it wasn’t screwed on? We have a doctor who can fix that – or at least he says he know how to fix it. Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has published a new paper outlining how he can conduct whole brain transplants by simply attaching a head to a new body. If this sounds vaguely familiar, Canavero was in the news quite a bit around 2017 when he first proposed this idea – it is not new but he claimed he had new technology that made it feasible. He dropped hints that he had some volunteers. When he could find a country to allow this surgery, he switched to promising he would transplant frozen brains in 2020. Needless to say, that didn’t happen either. Now Dr. Canavero is back again – claiming he has proof that head transplants work but he’s sticking to rain transplants because it’s better for old brains to be installed in young heads. Does this sound like Canavero is changing his focus to people who want to live forever?
“The unavailability of technologies that can successfully rejuvenate an aged body suggests that it is time to explore other options. BRAVE, the BRain Anastomosis Venture is part of a larger scope project – PERSEUS – that aims at moving an old brain into a young immunoconditioned body (or a nonsentient clone tout court when this becomes available) and kick off rejuvenation of the brain, as afforded by Progressive Brain Replacement (J Hebert, accompanying editorial). The anchor of this project is the successful achievement of whole brain transplantation (BT).”
The paper, published in the National Library of Medicine, is titled “Whole brain transplantation in man: Technically feasible” even though Canavero has said in the past that head transplants work but he wasn’t at liberty to give any more information. In his new paper, which he discussed recently with Vice, he addresses the top reasons given by medical professionals for why a brain transplant ISN’T feasible. In the Vice interview, he first defends his work in head transplants.
“A human head transplant was the intermediate step towards a brain transplant. Since the latter is considered impossible, I decided to focus on HT [head transplant], which is far simpler. However, although I can tell you HT works, unfortunately it does not rejuvenate aged head tissues, including the eyes. BT [Brain transplant] is the only option.”
Back in 2015, Sergio published a paper in Surgical Neurology International outlining his plans to put together a team of neurological surgeons to begin the process to perform a head transplant - cooling the donor head to keep it alive without oxygen, fusing it to the recipient body’s spinal cord with polyethylene glycol, attaching muscles and arteries while the patient is kept in a prolonged coma. When brought out of the coma, Canavero expected the head to speak immediately and the person walking and functioning normally within a year. His target for completion was 2017 but admitted at the time that finding a country that would let him do it was a challenge, and he hinted that that country might be China. In 2017, Canavero announced that "The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done” and he was preparing to perform a full head swap between brain dead organ donors before looking for a volunteer for a head transplant for a medical condition which is imminent. As expected, the surgery was allegedly performed in China and details were extremely scarce.
In 2019, Xiaoping Ren of China and Canavero announced they had successfully tested their unique glue (membrane sealant/fiber fusogen polyethylene glycol) on the “fully transected” (completely severed) spinal cords of monkeys and dogs and the animals were able to walk again without long-term pain. The tests were done at China’s Harbin Medical University and details were again scarce. Canavero and Ren claimed they had a volunteer with a failing body for the full head transplant on the healthy body of someone who had no brain activity, but the man backed out after his wife gave birth to a child conceived from his sperm.
In his new paper, published alone, Canavero addresses the three scientific objections (listed above) to brain transplants. He shows, with supporting photos and illustrations, how the solution to the first objection is to transplant the brain while it is inside the dural sac – the membranous sheath that surrounds the spinal cord and the spinal nerves and delivers the cerebrospinal fluid which provides nutrients and buoyancy to the spinal cord. The solution to the second objection is sutureless vascular anastomosis – potentially connecting blood vessels with stents. The third objection is solved with Neural fusion, which would reestablish immediate transmission of electrical impulses, and sutureless nerve anastomosis which would firm up the coaptation or drawing together of the nerve tissues. If it sounds like Canavero has this whole brain transplant process figured out – you’re right. If you think he’s ready to do one tomorrow -- you’re not.
“Contrary to common lore, a full BT (brain transplant) is achievable, at least theoretically. Of course, further extensive cadaveric rehearsals will be necessary, followed by tests in brain-dead organ donors (as e.g., done recently in kidney xenotransplants). New surgical tools will have to be developed. With appropriate funding, a long-held dream may finally come true.”
Canavero has had problems in finding living volunteers before, but this focus on beating aging through brain transplants may help him find a larger pool of candidates. He’s already shown that China is open to his experiments. However, he’s thrown a new monkey wrench into the process – his yet-to-be developed tool is a “robotic scoop with retractable tines” that would extract brains from their skulls, and instead of brain-dead bodies as recipients of the brains, he proposes using a clone of the owner of the brain. That would obviously require more new technology and waiting years for the clone to reach maturity. Then there is the huge ethical question of whether it is OK for a person to ‘kill’ their clone – even if it is to save their own life.
Are we ready for Dr. Sergio Canavero and his brain transplant proposals? You may not be but there are many people in the anti-aging, live forever camps who can’t wait for something like this … and have the funding to support it. Canavero has a country and a plan. How soon will it be before he has volunteers.
Or is this new paper a ‘leak’ letting us know the process is already underway … or completed?