Did the World’s First Human Head Transplant Really Happen?

It is highly doubtful that there is a single person out there who would dispute the claim that medicine has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent decades. Some illnesses which used to be fatal are now either curable or at least manageable. Medical procedures which once seemed like a figment of a researcher’s imagination have become a reality thanks to scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Naturally, these advancements extend to the field of organ transplantation. Today, we live in a world where a heart or a kidney transplant is nothing unusual. Of course, these are all extremely complex procedures and typically last resorts, but teams of surgeons in various parts of the world are performing them every day. And at the rate science is progressing, further landmark developments are not a question of if but when.

However, if the statements of one neurosurgeon are to be believed, that breakthrough may have already arrived. In the form of a human head transplant, no less. As shocking (and perhaps even off-putting) as this claim may be, it does warrant a closer examination.

The Background

When it comes to the notion of transplanting a human head, the one name which has been making the rounds in recent years is Sergio Canavero. Formally a part of the surgical staff of a Turin hospital, this Italian neurosurgeon has been working on this idea for quite some time.

However, it was in 2015 that he first gained worldwide fame (or more likely, notoriety) when he presented his plans to conduct the procedure in the near future. He even had a volunteer for the surgery – a Russian man named Valery Spiridonov, who was suffering from a debilitating muscular disease.

Then, two years later, he once again captured the spotlights when he announced that the procedure had been successfully carried out in China. Canavero made this shocking announcement at a press conference organized in Vienna but elaborated that the surgery had taken place on a cadaver.

The Details

As Canavero explained, a team under the guidance of Dr. Xiaoping Ren, his associate, performed the transplant on a corpse in China. He claims that the surgery lasted 18 hours and showed that it was possible to sever a head and then reconnect the nerves, spinal cord, and blood vessels. In his view, that was enough to qualify it as the world’s first human head transplant.

The procedure is a continuation of the team’s previous work where they cut the head of one rat and grafted it onto the body of a different one. They repeated the process several times, effectively creating animals with two heads. Reportedly, the rats were able to survive for a day and a half, on average. Canavero had also previously performed a procedure where he claimed to have reconnected the severed spinal cord of a dog – meant to serve as proof of concept.

Following the procedure in China, Canavero had made his further plans clear. The next stage would be to perform the transplant using living donors who are brain-dead. What is more, the plan was for the procedure to take place “imminently’.

The Response

As you would expect, the medical community has not met Canavero’s work with open arms. He has faced universal criticism, both for the ethical aspect of the procedure and its scientific feasibility.

As far as the ethics are concerned, it is easy to see where the problem lies. To complete the procedure, a human being would inevitably need to die. Not only that, but the doctors would need to perform the decapitations on the spot.

For those reasons, it seems impossible that any reputable medical organization would approve human head transplants as things stand now. And it does not seem likely that the situation will change in the foreseeable future, not without a massive body of new scientific evidence which would support the procedure.

But there are also obstacles of a more technical nature. Matters such as:

  • Preserving the Head

In order to perform any transplant, the organ going into the recipient’s body needs to be kept alive. This is tricky enough to achieve for isolated organs, and there is no telling how an entire head would respond. This is simply due to its complexity.

Canavero’s solution to this problem would be to cool the head to a very low temperature and induce hypothermia. He also states that at this point, the surgeons would need to attach the head to the donor body’s blood flow within the hour.

  • Time

As mentioned, a crucial part of the surgery would have a one-hour time limit. This number is even more daunting when you consider that the average heart transplant, a procedure which is significantly less complex than what Canavero proposes, takes around four hours on average.

  • Rejection

When it comes to transplants, one of the biggest concerns is how the recipient’s body will react to the new organ. This is often a bigger problem that the surgery itself. Namely, it is quite possible for the recipient’s immune system to trigger an attack and for the body to reject the organ. That is why immunosuppressant drugs are so common with these procedures.

Once again, it is imperative to take into account the complexity of the head. The mere fact that it contains different organs would likely increase the risk of rejection several times over.

  • The Spinal Cord

Another extremely difficult task would be reconnecting the spinal cord. Canavero believes a special substance, a “glue” of sorts, can provide the answer. However, this claim lacks further proof.

Additionally, Canavero’s procedure would require the patient to be put in a coma for several weeks, giving the spinal cord time to heal. According to experts, that is yet another potential problem.

  • Psychological Effect

Even if the procedure were to somehow succeed, there is one last issue to consider. There is no way of knowing how the patient’s mind would respond to such a profound change. According to certain expert opinions, a head transplant could bring about a completely new form of insanity.

Conclusion

Upon closer inspection, it would appear that Canavero’s claim regarding the success of the world’s first human head transplant was, at best, premature.

Now, this does not mean there is no merit to his work. Tests on cadavers are an integral part of discovering new medical techniques. However, it does seem that we are a long way off from the point where this procedure can become feasible. And it is questionable if we’ll ever get there.

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/oct/03/will-first-human-head-transplant-happen-in-2017
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5092769/World-s-human-head-transplant-carried-out.html
https://www.businessinsider.com/head-transplant-rat-experiment-2017-4
http://surgicalneurologyint.com/surgicalint-articles/heaven-the-head-anastomosis-venture-project-outline-for-the-first-human-head-transplantation-with-spinal-linkage-gemini/
https://www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/transplants#procedure
https://www.popsci.com/no-human-head-transplants-will-not-be-possible-2017
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/man-undergoing-head-transplant-could-experience-something-a-lot-worse-than-death-says-neurological-10164423.html

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