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Surgeon Suggests Ways to Perform Human Head Transplants

Details to be presented this summer at U.S. conference

Italian surgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group believes that he has developed techniques that should make it possible to attach a human donor body to a head. He plans to present his theories at the next meeting of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons (AANOS), to be held June 12–13 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Details of Canavero’s methods were published February 3 in the online edition of Surgical Neurology International.

No one –– at least in modern times –– has tried to attach a living human head to the donated body of someone who has died; the intricacies and complications have always seemed insurmountable. But at the AANOS meeting, Canavero is going to suggest that the science of transplantation may have reached the point where such a feat is achievable.

He believes that cooling both the body and the head before surgery should prevent cell death during the short time that one part would not be able to communicate with the other. The biggest problem, connecting the spinal cord, he believes, could be solved by severing the cord very cleanly in both the host and donor bodies, and then applying polyethylene glycol to the joined section; prior research has shown that this chemical can assist with fusing. The polyethylene glycol would then be applied to the same area for several hours after the surgery.

The patient would have to be kept comatose for several weeks to prevent movement, while also being electrically stimulated to promote nerve activity, Canavero says. He does not see any reason why such a patient would not be able to walk within 1 year after the procedure.

Needless to say, connecting a living head to a recently deceased person’s body comes with a host of ethical, moral, and legal questions — another part of why no one has tried such a procedure. For example, the surgically created “chimera” would carry the mind of the recipient, but should he or she reproduce, the offspring would carry the genetic inheritance of the donor. Nevertheless, Canavero believes that because surgery has evolved to the point that carrying out such a procedure might be possible, it is time that head transplants be openly discussed.

Interestingly, the procedure has been tried on animals. In the 1950’s, Russian transplant pioneers were performing it on dogs, and in the 1970’s Robert White tried it with a monkey. Unfortunately, back then, drugs that prevent rejection were not sufficiently refined to offer much hope for the recipients. Moreover, at that time, experts believed that severed nerves could not be reconnected.

Canavero first presented his theories in the June 2013 issue of Surgical Neurology International.

Sources: MedicalXpress; February 26, 2015; SNI; February 3, 2015; and SNI; June 13, 2013.


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