Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero made headlines in 2015 when he stated his interest in performing the world’s first human head transplant, claiming that technology may allow him to do this as early as 2017. The stated year has now arrived, and Dr. Canavero has found himself a willing participant, though whether the operation would actually be possible remains to be seen.
31-year-old Valery Spiridonov is a Russian programmer who suffers from a severe form of spinal muscular atrophy called Werdnig–Hoffmann disease. This rare neuromuscular disorder causes the degeneration of nerve cells in the brain which results in muscle weakness. As such, Spiridonov is confined to a wheelchair and his health is in a rapid decline. Spiridonov has volunteered to be the patient in Dr. Canavero’s surgery, so once a compatible donor body is found and the preparation is done, the world could see an attempt at a human head transplant.
Reception to Dr. Canavero’s plans has been overwhelmingly negative. He has been criticised on ethical grounds, with Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center referring to him as “out of his mind”, and claiming that the proposed surgery is “both rotten scientifically and lousy ethically.” Dr. Hunt Batjer, president elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, stated that Spiridonov could face a fate worse than death if he went through with the surgery, and that it could result in an unprecedented level of insanity as nobody knows how the chemicals in his brain would respond to being attached to a new body.
Dr. Robert J. White famously attempted a monkey head transplant during the 1970s. The subject was able to move its head but because the spinal cord was unable to be properly reconnected, this was the only movement it was capable of. The monkey died nine days later as a result of immune rejection, and Dr. White was widely criticised for his ‘barbaric’ treatment of animals.
Despite the lack of any fully successful head transplants on animals however, Dr. Canavero seems convinced that he can do it. The procedure would work by cooling both the donor body and Spiridonov’s to slow circulation. Spiridonov’s head would then be carefully removed, with several incisions made to expose the muscles and arteries. Finally, his spine would be severed using high-tech medical equipment to make the cut as clean and precise as possible. A second medical team would meanwhile be removing the donor body’s head using the same techniques. Spiridonov’s spine would then be fused to the spine of the donor body and the muscles would be reconnected. Following the surgery, Spiridonov would be kept sedated for three days. He would presumably be administered immunosuppressive drugs to reduce the risk of transplant rejection from the body.
The best case scenario would be a complete success where Spiridonov has complete control of his new body, however given all the current evidence, this seems highly unlikely. It is quite probable that something along the road will go very wrong, resulting in death or worse for Spiridonov.
Despite the many potential problems with this surgery however, there is something undeniably fascinating with the prospect of a successful human head transplant.
This is a procedure that, if done properly, could change the face of medical science forever.