Most people react with a mix of shock, horror and disgust when hearing the prospect of human head transplantation. The thought of severing a human head for the sake of transplanting it onto another individual’s body is far beyond most people’s comprehension and desire. This of course, has not stopped enough scientists from pursuing the possibility, and in fact, recent advances in the practice of transplantation now suggest that in 2017 we may very well see the first ever case of a human head transplant.
Head transplants in animals
black art of cranial transplantation owes its beginnings to Russian surgeon Vladimir Demikhov who in the 1950s and ’60s successfully grafted the head and forelimbs of a smaller dog onto the body of a larger one. The image to the left is an actual example of Demikhov’s disturbing work. The transplanted dogs did not survive past 6 days due to the host dog’s immune system eventually rejecting its unwelcome addition.
In the 1970s, and inspired by the work of Demikhov, another surgeon by the name of Robert White at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, developed a procedure involving the first successful head transplant on a monkey. Although the monkey’s head was attached to the body of another, Dr. White did not complete the procedure by fusing the spinal cords. The newly transplanted monkey head was thus paralyzed and unable to breath without artificial assistance, and lived for only nine days.
Towards human head transplants
Recently, a neuroscientist by the name of Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy published a paper detailing how a human head transplant can be undertaken.
According to Canavero, the goal is to extend the lives of people whose bodies are either riddled with cancer or debilitated and paralyzed due to any number of neurodegenerative diseases. Given surgical advances and successes, Canavero believes the main hurdles to human head transplantation – joining the spinal cords, preventing the immune system from rejecting the transplant and connecting all required tissues and vessel – can now be overcome, “I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible,” says Canavero in an interview with the New Scientist.
[The] procedure 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.
As fascinating as this procedure may be, human head transplantation raises a number of serious ethical questions and concerns. Given the controversy and complication surrounding human face transplants, just imagine a patient having to deal with the acceptance of someone else’s entire body. The psychological ordeal in having to grow accustomed to a whole new body is completely beyond the scope of current scientific understanding.
Although many scientists still scoff at Canavero’s proposed plan, he is intent on assembling a team with the hope of attempting a human head transplant in two years.