Getting a Head


Miguel Crespo

If you thought Dr. Frankenstein was just a figment of Mary Shelley’s imagination, history is about to turn against you. If you believed connecting heads to different bodies was just a gimmick of old-school science fiction comics, here is a slap in the face from destiny. After successfully transplanting hands and even faces, neurosurgeons are now trying to live up to the ultimate challenge of transplanting a head. Yes, you read correctly, this is not a typo.

Dr. Sergio Cavanero in Italy and Dr. Xiaoping Ren in China have already been trying to get around the legal and ethical hurdles that concern such a procedure, and they claim they can make it with more than a 90% chance of success. Detractors call him bombastic, but Dr. Cavanero pays no heed to critics. Most likely, the surgery will have to take place in China because no other country seems willing to permit it yet. Dr. Canavero is known to make unfounded claims and promote his work largely through the media. However, he is an accomplished surgeon with a solvent publication record in top-notch journals.

Dr. Sergio Canavero, who plans to carry out the world’s first human head transplant in December this year.

A similar procedure has already been carried out in mice by Dr. Ren where the spinal cord was sectioned with a diamond blade and the nerves glued back. The miracle was made possible by a chemical known as PEG, poly ethylene glycol by its full name. This amber fluid can break open the lipid membrane, which lines the neurons and fuse together two different cells, thereby allowing them to function as a single hybrid cell.

History is punctuated with attempts of head transplants in dogs and monkeys. The first “two-headed” dog came into being in St. Louis Missouri back in 1908. The bicephalic beast was again generated in the Soviet Union, and lived for 23 days.  In the 1970s, a surgeon named Robert White transplanted the heads of several rhesus monkeys onto others’ bodies. And in January this year, Dr. Ren was able to duplicate the feat. Unfortunately, these animals couldn’t do much more than blink, breathe, and follow objects with their eyes.

The first human to volunteer was 31 year old Russian, Valerey Spiridov. Paralyzed from the neck down, he can barely eat, type, or move the joystick that sets his chair in motion. He suffers from a rare muscle wasting disease. In spite of the surgeons’ optimism, concerns of all kinds have been raised. In the first place, the procedure entails the concert of 80 surgeons working together on the order of days. The limiting step in the process is keeping the brain cold after the head has been removed in order for it to be transplanted onto the donor’s body. The brain suffers irreversible damage within minutes of losing blood flow; cooling the brain can delay damage for up to one hour.

In this procedure, only one hour is available by injecting a liquid into the head blood vessels and recirculating it throughout. Once the surgeons get that down, then comes the rest of the procedure joining of the arteries, veins, muscles, and, ultimately, the skin. Such a procedure requires a great deal of choreography and its cost is estimated at $10-100 million, depending on where it takes place.

Is it worth it? Well, Spiridov himself initially said that he was not signing up for an expensive euthanasia and would not go through the operation unless success is guaranteed. But as the date approached, he announced he will not undergo the surgery.

However controversial, if successful, this procedure would bring hope to those who become immobilized from spinal lesions. But this raises more questions than answers: if according to Drs. Ren and Canavero this technology is available, why not apply it to remedy spinal lesions?

Many scientists and ethicists have slammed the project, accusing the surgeons involved of promoting junk science and raising false hopes. However shaky, others find scientific foundation in the project.

What we know so far is that hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs, uteruses, voice boxes, tongues, penises, hands, and faces can be transplanted. So there’s good reason to think that the next logical step would be the head. However, in this case immunological rejection becomes more of an issue than in the previous instances. And who is rejecting who anyway? Is it the body donor who receives a head transplant? Or is it the head donor who receives a new body from a neurologically dead donor?

Yet another way to look at it, what would happen if an older head was transplanted onto a younger body? Would we be at the gates of life extension technology? Another aspect to take into consideration would be personality. It is known that hormones produced by the body have an effect on the brain. Would this result in a body changing the person’s mood, a head commanding a new body, or a mixture of both? And if so, would the head donor be inheriting the ways of a dead person or imposing his on a corpse?

There’s no previous evidence to back up claims in any direction, and, unfortunately, there is only one way to know.

Comments are closed.