An Italian surgeon is hoping to perform the world’s first human head transplant, claiming he could have recipients of the radical surgery thinking their own thoughts and speaking with their own voice. He also claims it could be done within two years’ time.
Surgeon Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy outlined the technique, which he conceived in 2013, in a paper published this month in the Surgical Neurology International Journal.
“The real stumbling block is the ethics,” the physician told the New Scientist magazine. “Should the surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it,” he added, noting that someone will likely try it as medical technology continues to advance.
It does raise several qestions — namely, if a person has someone else’s body, are they still themself? And is it ethical to perform the procedure on humans when it has only been tested, with limited success, on dogs and primates?
Bioethics aside, the surgery would be unfathomably complex.
The key, Canavero wrote, is extreme cooling of the bodies of the recipient and the donor and the reattachment of the donor head within the hour.
Surgeons would dissect tissues around the neck and link blood vessels with minute tubes. The spinal cords would be cut with an extra-sharp blade, making a “clean cut” that is essential to the surgery’s success and theoretically allowing the two spinal cords to fuse.
After the surgery, the patient would spend about a month in a medically-induced coma to let the body heal without risk of movement.
Canavero contends the patient would be able to feel his or her new face and speak in a natural voice — and could eventually be able to walk.
The first successful head transplant was in 1970, when Cleveland neurosurgeon Robert White, a doctor from Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, transplanted the head of a monkey onto the body of another.
The monkey — who needed the assistance of a machine to breathe and was paralyzed from the neck down — lived only eight days, dying when the body’s immune system rejected the host head.
Canavero plans to announce his project in June at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons in Annapolis, Md.
He told New Scientist magazine that he already has several volunteers willing to undergo the surgery.