Can we really attach a head onto a new body? Despite ethics concerns, one researcher says “yes.”
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An Italian scientist is once again in the news for his efforts to make head transplants—that’s right, attaching a human head to a new body—a reality in the very near future. On Wednesday, New Scientist reported that Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group would launch his Frankensteinian project at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons. At the meeting, Canavero will recruit like-minded scientists and spread the gospel of his new technique, published earlier this month in the journal Surgical Neurology International. In the paper, fantastically titled, “The ‘Gemini’ spinal cord fusion protocol: Reloaded,” Canavero gives a broad outline of how the surgery could be successful, despite the widely-noted problems of fusing the spine and keeping the host body from rejecting the new noggin. The New Scientist describes the process, which Canavero believes can treat patients with certain forms of paralysis or failing organs:
It involves cooling the recipient's head and the donor body to extend the time their cells can survive without oxygen. The tissue around the neck is dissected and the major blood vessels are linked using tiny tubes, before the spinal cords of each person are cut. Cleanly severing the cords is key, says Canavero.
The recipient's head is then moved onto the donor body and the two ends of the spinal cord—which resemble two densely packed bundles of spaghetti—are fused together. To achieve this, Canavero intends to flush the area with a chemical called polyethylene glycol, and follow up with several hours of injections of the same stuff. Just like hot water makes dry spaghetti stick together, polyethylene glycol encourages the fat in cell membranes to mesh.
Next, the muscles and blood supply would be sutured and the recipient kept in a coma for three or four weeks to prevent movement. Implanted electrodes would provide regular electrical stimulation to the spinal cord, because research suggests this can strengthen new nerve connections.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne and Addison Eaton
But many neuroscientists believe Canavero’s quest to be completely untenable, not to mention irresponsible. “Just to do the experiments is unethical,” Jerry Silver, a professor at Case Western University told CBS News in 2013. “This is bad science, this should never happen.” Silver, who’s work Canavero claims as an influence, was in the room for a famous 1970 experiment in which Dr. Robert White attached the head of one monkey onto the body of another. “I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal,” Silver told CBS. Some scientists contacted by New Scientist refused to even comment on the procedure, stating the idea was “too outlandish.”
Last year, Mark Hay wrote about Canavero for GOOD, weighing the scientist’s optimistic plans against the chorus of critics that proclaim his work unrealistic or sensational. “For now we’re stuck with the impractical dreams of Dr. Canavero,” Hay wrote, but “it would be foolish to write off the possibility that transferring a head may one day be as feasible as transplanting hearts, lungs, or kidneys—all once medical pipe dreams or futuristic fantasies.”
Canavero claims his procedure is not only realistic, but can successfully be accomplished in the next two years. The AANOS meeting will be his chance to shore up support from the neurology community and field concerns from his peers. “If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it,” he told New Scientist. “But if people don’t want it, in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else. I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.”