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In a story that sounds like overwrought science fiction, an Italian doctor has revealed plans to proceed with the first human head transplant in 2017. Yes, you read that correctly. The doctor says all the tools to perform this operation are possible, although the procedure sounds horrific and presents obvious ethical concerns.
The notion of a head transplant involves decapitating a patient’s entire head and grafting it onto a donor body. The goal would be to provide patients with degenerative diseases access to a new, healthy body.
Never before has this procedure been attempted on a human, although doctors have tried the idea out on animals without much success. Life Magazine detailed a 1954 case involving Soviet surgeon named Vladimir Demikhov, who attached a puppy’s head and forelegs onto the back of another dog. The conjoined animals only survived a few days. In 1970, US doctors successfully transplanted a rhesus monkey’s head onto another rhesus monkey’s body. The monkey survived for 8 days, but Dr. Jerry Silver described the experience as horrific: “I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. It was just awful. I don’t think it should ever be done again.”
Yet the procedure could happen again, and this time, it would involve a human head. Italian doctor Sergio Canavero revealed plans for his GEMINI project involving the world’s first human head transplant. Canavaro, who outlined his “spinal cord fusion protocol” in the Surgical Neurology International journal, believes the operation will be available by 2017. The process will be an unbelievably intricate one, requiring connection of all tissues, blood vessels, and the spinal cord of the patient and the donor body. Both the head and body will be cooled before the operation, and the spinal cords will be fused together with polyethylene glycol.
The operation would require the head and its newfound body to stay in a coma for a month afterward. Canavero believes the newly fused person would require a year of rehab before being able to speak and walk normally. Canavero believes the risks outweigh the possible benefits of providing patients with new bodies to overcome such catastrophic diseases as muscular dystrophy: “These are a source of huge suffering, with no cure at hand.”
Critics say Canavero lives in a fantasy world. Is it possible to sever a head and bring it back to life on another body simply by gluing it together? Will all the axons correspond to their newfound neighbors? It sounds impossible for good reason. Dr. Harry Goldsmith of the University of California, Davis, calls the operation “very unlikely” to ever happen, let alone be successful.
Dr. Canavero plans to forge ahead with his plans, no matter how barbaric they appear: “If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it, in the U.S. or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else.” Medical ethicists shall have a field day with this controversial proposal, for there’s never any guarantee that a transplant of any body part will ever succeed. A 1998 hand transplant resulted in the patient demanding that the new hand be removed. Who knows how scary it would feel for a patient to experience an entirely different body. All signs point to disaster.