There have been multiple stories circling the Internet over the past few years about successful head transplants, and if you haven’t already figured it out – none of them are true. There have been no attempts for a full head transplant… yet.However, in December 2017, the world’s first head transplant may be administered if the procedure is approved. If this takes place, history will be made in neurology and neurosurgery.
The Head Transplant
Dr. Sergio Canavero, an Italian neuroscientist, and the surgeon have been planning the world’s first head transplant for many years. His plans were first outlined and published by Surgical Neurology International in 2013. He refers to a 1970 procedure in which the first cephalo- somatic linkage was successful in a monkey. But since there was a lack of technology for reconnecting the spinal cord, research was halted.
The head transplant is planned to take place on a volunteer from Russia, Valery Spiridinov (31). Valery suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, preventing his muscles from growing. With this rare genetic condition, his muscles are unable to support his adult skeletal structure. It is not yet definite that Spiridinov will be the one receiving the transplant due to legal matters.
In June 2015, Dr. Canavero was already recruiting other surgeons to participate. Dr. Ren Xiaoping, a Chinese surgeon, became Dr. Canavero’s assistant. Dr. Ren Xiaoping assisted in the first hand-transplant in the United States in 1999 and was contributing to another full-body transplant in China. The transplant is expected to take 36 hours and cost $10-15 million, while involving over 80 other surgeons from Russia, China, and South Korea.
The team will attend a conference in Baltimore, MD in June 2017 to introduce themselves and describe their plan.
Outlined in Surgical Neurology International, the head transplant procedure will start with the anesthetization of the subject. The body will then be cooled to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which will delay tissue decay in the brain. Decapitation is the next step, simultaneously separating the spine in both the subject receiving the transplant as well as the donor body. The head will then be attached to the donor body’s neck, and the spinal cord will be connected with polyethylene glycol. After this, muscles and blood supply will get connected to the head, and electrodes will be implanted to promote nerve networks and growth.
The patient will be placed in an induced coma for about a month while blood networks and nerves rebuild. Airways will also be reconnected as well as the esophagus and blood vessels.
The procedure is still under scrutiny by many healthcare professionals worldwide, so it’s unsure if it will actually happen in December 2017. One of the main arguments is that there has been no successful head transplants performed on animals, let alone humans. In 1970, the monkey rejected the new organ, and ultimately died after about a week. Many critics are fearful of this happening, resulting in the patient’s death.
Another issue is the fact that there are so many tiny nerve endings and other parts of the body that people just don’t understand how it could actually be beneficial for the subject. The number of connections and openings also pose a greater risk for infection. In addition to these concerns, there is a possibility of unknown levels of insanity that may result from transferring a foreign head.
The popular belief is that it will not be possible by December 2017, and will not happen for another few decades. Due to ethical concerns, professionals believe that the procedure should show long-term positive effects on an animal before attempting on a human.