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Professor and doctor Arthur Caplan rebuts transplant doctor Sergio Canavero’s assertion that head transplants are only two years away. As a medical and bioethics author, he takes a different look at this situation. Canavero is excited about the technical prospects of removing a head from one body and placing it on another; Caplan is concerned about the principles of such a procedure.
Ethically, Caplan says that people cannot just stick an ailing head on an able body, or vice versa. Each person’s brain works poetically within the body’s nervous system. There is no guarantee that the donor body would receive the correct signals from a foreign head. Caplan does not believe, as does Canavero, that the person will walk and talk within a year. He fears they will become mentally disabled or insane.
Additionally, Caplan is not as casual with explaining the complexities of fusing a spinal cord from the head to the body. He argues that if it were as simple as Dr. Canavero will lay out in his proposal, there would be fewer paralyzed individuals in the world. He states emphatically that science does not yet know how to rewire spinal cords. Stem cell might be able to deal with the complexities of re-wiring spinal cords, but the use of stem cell tissue is illegal in several states and adds another moral conundrum to the debate.
Medicine can do much to help a transplant’s success rate. However the problem with anti-rejection drugs is that too much of them may overwhelm an already weakened body. The heart and liver are particularly susceptible to harm from immunosuppression drugs. The drugs can damage those delicate organs in addition to other vital parts of the body.
Dr. Canavero intends to announce his plans to his peers at the annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons in Annapolis, Maryland this June. He announced his intention in the February issue of New Scientist magazine. A closer look at the article reveals that Dr. Canavero just might know the uphill battle that he faces when it comes to head transplantation. In fact, a direct quote from the article reveals that the proposal is a “call to arms to get interested parties together to work towards the surgery.” He might not have many colleagues on his side. Dr. Harry Goldsmith, who has had success with spinal cord surgeries, thinks that success is very unlikely. Dr. William Matthews optimistically states that head transplant is possible, but not in the near future.
Science has had success with brain transplantation, but none involving human subjects. Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov transferred a puppy’s head and legs onto the back of a larger dog. The dog lived for no more than six days. In America, Robert White transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another monkey. It lived for nine days. No head transplants were attempted since then, but Dr. Canavero contends that the “technical aspects” are feasible, making it a perfect time to restart such procedures.
By Danielle Branch