Medical science has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent decades: No argument there.
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, treatment choices of last resort), but teams of surgeons in various parts of the world are performing transplants every day. Needless to say, further landmark developments in medical science are not a question of when, not if.
However, if the statements of one neurosurgeon transplants are to be believed, medical science is ready to take a quantum leap forward with a successful human head transplant in the near future. If true, this shocking claim would catapult transplants back into the spotlight and front and center in the world of medical science — as stunning, perhaps, as the discovery of DNA or cloning of mammals. It would be hard to find a similar precedent in all of science. This would rank right up there with Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity or the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head.
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. Formerly on the staff of a Turin hospital, this Italian neurosurgeon has been working on this idea for quite some time.
He first revealed his Frankenstein-ian plans for a human head transplant in 2015. 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 on a cadaver in China.
As Canavero explained, a team under the guidance of Dr. Xiaoping Ren, took 18 hours to perform the surgery, demonstrating 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 off one rat and grafted it onto the body of a different one, one head behind the other. 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’.
Right or wrong, 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 it is, to complete the procedure, a human being would need to die and organs for transplants are not generally taken from people who are still breathing. 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. 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.
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.
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 could greatly increase the risk of rejection.
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 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.
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. A head transplant, some suspect, could be an achievement accompanied by the birth of a completely new form of insanity.
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.
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.