Unless you have been avoiding all forms of social media for the past year or so I imagine you have at least seen one of the many articles about a soon-to-be head transplant. Well, in case you haven’t heard or are looking for more information, Science on the Rocks has you covered.
A few years ago a mad scientist by the name of Sergio Canavero announced that he was going to perform the first head transplant. Many thought it was a publicity hoax, and really, it still could be. However, Dr. Canavero has stood by his guns (or his specially made, spine-severing scalpel, as it were) and recently announced that he plans to perform the surgery this year.
Any good head transplant needs a head to transplant. Enter Russian software educator Valery Spiridonov. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare spinal muscular atrophy disorder that causes the death of nerve and muscle cells. While he has thus far beaten the odds by surviving into his thirties, he is bound to a wheelchair and has severely limited mobility. He, along with a reported dozen or so others, has volunteered to be the subject of Dr. Canavero’s experimental procedure.
For as far-fetched as the idea of a head transplant is, the proposed procedure is fairly similar to current other transplants. WARNING: IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH THIS MAY MAKE YOU FEEL SOME TYPE OF WAY
Step 1. Dr. Canavero (or Dr. Frankenstein, pretty sure he will respond to either) will sever the head from Mr. Spiridonov and place the head in a freezer to slow down metabolism (i.e. cell death) as much as possible. If you have taken any first aid course I am sure you have heard if someone loses a finger, for example, you should place the finger on ice. Well this is kind of the same idea.
Step 2. Next, the donor body will be relieved of its head as well and put under a similar cold treatment.
Step 3. Then, Dr. Canavero and his team will play connect-the-arteries with all of the severed blood vessels. He will also be connecting the veins, however, connect-the-veins doesn’t roll off the tongue as well. This will allow circulation between the new head and body.
Step 4. Finally, the spine will be reattached and fused together.
Why You Should Care:
This procedure could change the game as far as medicine goes. If unsuccessful, it will result in the death of Mr. Spiridonov and an astonishing number of “I told you so” ‘s from the scientific community at large. But, if it somehow succeeds the repercussions will be astounding. Imagine a future where people with incurable, debilitating, physical diseases could be treated. Or a future where wealthy older people, sharp in mind, but decrepit in body, could pay to have their head transferred to a more youthful physique. Or how about a woman, born in a man’s body, being able to undergo gender reassignment surgery that results in having a fully functioning female body. It would undoubtedly be the biggest leap in medical surgery, and the most controversial one in medical ethics, of the century. Right now the question is can we do it, but if successful we must quickly ask should we do it.
Why It Won’t Work:
It just won’t. Maybe someday technology will get to a place where a full head transplant, but we are not there yet. So many things could go wrong during the procedure, and even if the actual transplant works, the chances of it resulting in Mr. Spiridonov regaining control of his body — not his old body, but the donor’s new body — are astronomically low. Dr. Canavero seems pretty confident in the success rate, but let’s just touch briefly on some things that may go wrong. First off, Spiridonov could die immediately after having his head cut off of his body. There really is not much science to explain here. If you cut someone’s head off, even in a controlled environment, there is a good chance they will not make it. Second, even if there is successful reattachment and if Spiridonov retains his brain function afterwards, there is no precedent for believing he would be able to use the new body. And yes, I made the “if”’s literally big because they are big “if”’s. Our bodies are amazing at recognizing what is a part of us, and what is foreign. It is the reason our immune systems are so great at managing illness and infection. As a result though, many organ transplants are unsuccessful due to the body rejecting the unfamiliar tissues of the organ. Just for reference, transplanted kidneys fail 21% of the time after 5 years. That is the failure rate for a fairly routine organ transplant, yet Dr. Spiridonov is confident the outcome will be better when transplanting an entire body? I, and most of the scientific community, am skeptical to say the least.
Whether a media stunt or not, Dr. Canavero has certainly gained quite a bit of attention with his proposed head transplant. If successful — a slim to nothing chance — the procedure would be an unprecedented leap forward in the medical sciences, and only time would tell the long-term implications it would have. While my heart goes out to Mr. Spiridonov, I simply do not see how the procedure could possibly be allowed to proceed. Regardless of the millions of dollars it would cost, the dozens of medical professionals it would take, and the countless hours of operating, I cannot imagine that any country, even those with lax medical ethics laws, would allow the procedure to happen. The first head transplant could turn out to be a medical miracle, an unbelievable procedure of sci-fi novel proportion, but I urge everyone excited for the outcome…don’t get ahead of yourselves.