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Life Imitates Sci-fi: The First Human Head Transplant

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Humanity has actually reached the stage in its technological advancement when stuff only imaginable in sci-fi films is set to become reality: there now exists a plan for the first human head transplant.

The groundbreaking surgery has been conceived by Sergio Canavero of the Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Turin, Italy. With the noble goals of extending life and outsmarting terminal illnesses like cancer and muscular dystrophy, Canavero claims that his plan for cranial transplant has already overcome the hurdles of spinal cord fusion and immune system rejection – which would’ve made such a process unthinkable in the past.

He will reveal his plan at the June 2015 conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland. If everything goes smoothly, the first such procedure could happen in 2017.

This is not the first time that medicine has tried to play “musical heads.” In 1954, Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov conducted head transplant surgery with dogs – which proved fatal within six days.

In 1970, a team at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine had better luck when they transplanted monkey heads. This surgery, however, ignored the problem of spinal cord reattachment, which meant that the new hybrid monkey could not move. However, immune system complications led to the body’s rejection of the new head and eventual death, nine days after the surgery.

“I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible,” says Canavero, whose technical innovations include (according to his published summary “Surgical Neurology International, doi.org/2c7”) cooling the transplanted head and receiving body before detachment and linking of new blood vessels before cutting any spinal cords. In order to achieve a perfect fusion of the two spinal cords, which is essential to the procedure’s success, Canavero plans to flood the organs with polyethylene glycol, and continue injecting it into the area after surgery. This chemical will, supposedly, promote fusion in the fat of cell membranes.

The patient will be kept in a coma for three to four weeks after the surgery, to prevent movement that could cause damage to the delicate new body. The patient’s nervous system will be stimulated by electrodes all the while.

Canavero expects that the patient would be able to return to a normal way of life within a year, after learning how to walk, talk and control his or her new body.

Critics of the proposed surgery cite spinal cord attachment as the Achilles heel of the plan. “There is no evidence that the connectivity of cord and brain would lead to useful sentient or motor function following head transplantation,” says Richard Borgens, director of the Center for Paralysis Research at Purdue University.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in this journey into a new era of medical technology will be finding a country to approve such a procedure. “The real stumbling block is the ethics,” said Canavero. “Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it.”

The surgery indeed raises philosophical questions about the essence of our existence as individuals. Do we have a “personality”? If so, is it a physical entity? If it is, then where does it dwell? Some scientists believe that the stuff that makes up each human’s unique personality is stored in the brain’s cortex, which would not be altered in Canavero’s procedure.

A procedure like this opens up ethical dilemmas that could arise much further down the road. What if, in the future, people want to swap bodies for purely aesthetic reasons? Is that ethical?

Most scientists are so skeptical of the feasibility of such a procedure that they do not even bother reacting to its proposition. Professor Harry Goldsmith, an expert in neurological surgery at the University of California, Davis, comments, “I don’t believe it will ever work, there are too many problems with the procedure. Trying to keep someone healthy in a coma for four weeks – it’s not going to happen.”

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