According to an Italian doctor, a human head transplant will be able to take place only two years in the future. Dr. Sergio Canavero of Turin, Italy states that the technology to perform such a procedure is available now or will be in the near future. In an interview in New Scientist magazine, Dr. Canavero reveals his proposal on how the head surgery could be done. He intends to present his proposal to a panel of his peers at an orthopedic surgery conference in Annapolis, Maryland this June.
Ahead of this conference, some of his peers believe that this overly complicated head surgery is so extreme that it could not be only two years down the road. Dr. Harry Goldsmith, a physician who performed spinal surgery on an individual who eventually walked, is extremely skeptical. Dr. William Matthews told New Scientist that such a head surgery is possible, but is more than two years down the road. However Dr. Canavero contends that with the perfect conditions and the right patients, things would work out.
Canavero agrees that the field of people needing such an unusual head surgery is small. He limits them to people with spinal cord injuries or people with terminal conditions. People with degenerated muscles or those with advanced cancer would be good candidates.
The physician makes the task seem simple. First the patient’s body is cooled to extend the time its cells can live without oxygen. Next the patient’s spinal cord is carefully cut to minimize nerve damage. Then the recipient’s head is carefully placed on the donor body making sure to line up blood vessels and muscle tissue. The most difficult part would be the melding of the spinal cord, akin to a bundle of fiber optic cables. Canavero states that using polyethylene glycol would help the fat in the spinal cord adhere to the cell membranes of the donor body. Finally, the patient spends several weeks in a coma to minimize their movement. Doctors would finally implant electrodes to provide electrical stimulation, an efficient way to strengthen new nerve connections. Dr. Canavero expects the patient to be able to feel and move their new head. They would have the same voice and be able to walk within a year.
Although this scenario sounds eerily similar to 1985’s Re-animator, human head transplants involving animals have taken place since the 1970s. A research team in Cleveland, Ohio transplanted the head of a monkey onto the body of another. The team did not attempt to fuse the spinal cord, which was likely why the monkey’s body never moved. However the test subject was able to breathe with assistance and lived for nine days in the lab. Researchers postulate that the use of anti-rejection medications may have prevented the monkey’s head from rejecting the immune system of the donor body.
Today, there are amazing advances in technology that do not involve the high level of improbably that Dr. Canavero’s does. Allen Zderad of Minnesota, is able to see with bionic eyes after 10 years of blindness. Mr. Zderad’s case is not unusual as he is the 15th person to receive such an operation. Bionics have also helped three Austrian men regain the use of their hands. This new type of surgery culls muscles from the legs and transplants them into the arms.
By Danielle Branch