The World's First Head Transplant

How would a head transplant be done?

It’s either the stuff of science fiction or the stuff of horror, but either way, according to an Italian neuroscientist, the first head transplant between humans is set to take place within the next year and a half.

A paper published in the June issue of Surgical Neurology International by Dr. Sergio Canavero announced that by the end of 2017, a Russian computer scientist will be the first human to have his head removed from his body and attached to a “donor body.”

The idea of attaching a person's head to another person's body is obviously going to set off all kinds of ethical and moral discussions. Doctors, researchers and religious leaders -- including the Russian Orthodox Church -- are all beginning to come forward with warnings about trying a surgery that many say is hundreds of years in the future, if doable at all.  

Here’s a look at what the procedure involves and what other doctors and religious leaders think of the prospect of putting a man’s head on another man’s body.

What is a head transplant?

A head transplant is where a living head and brain is attached to another person’s donor body.

How does Canavero’s human head transplant work?

Here’s how Canavero proposed to do it:

• Both the donor body and the head and brain to be attached to the body are cooled to between 54.6 and 59 degrees F. This is done to try to keep brain cells alive a bit longer when they are deprived of oxygen during the procedure.

• Next, the tissue around the neck is cut to reveal the major blood vessels.

• The blood vessels are linked using tiny tubes.

• The spinal cord on the donor body and the spinal cord on the body of the head to be transplanted are both severed with a knife sharpened to provide a clean, precise cut.

• This is when the head is removed.

• The two ends of the spinal cords are fused with the help of a chemical called polyethylene glycol. The chemical prompts growth of spinal cord cells.

• The muscles and blood supply are connected to the new body.

What happens if everything goes as expected?

If the head is transplanted and the patient survives the surgery, he is put into a medically-induced coma for the next month.

Here’s Dr. Canavero’s explanation.

What’s the best outcome to expect?

Dr. Canavero says he expects patients will be able to move, feel their face and speak – in the same voice – as soon as they are awakened from the coma. Walking, he believes, would come within a year.

Has a head transplant been tried before?

Not on humans, but it has been done on animals – dogs, monkeys and rats.

>>Who is Valery Spiridonov? 5 things to know about Russian volunteer for first human head transplant

How successful were those attempts?

Successful in that they were completed, not successful in that the animals died rather quickly after surgery.

Does Dr. Canavero have support in the medical community?

No, he doesn’t. Most doctors who have commented on the surgery say they don’t believe it can be done. Dr. Jerry Silver, who witnessed a head transplant on a rhesus monkey, told CBS News it was “bad science,” at best.

"I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. The head will stay alive, but not very long," the Case Western Reserve University neurologist said. "It was just awful. I don't think it should ever be done again.”

Silver says science is “ light years away from what they're talking about. ... to severe a head and even contemplate the possibility of gluing axons back properly across the lesion to their neighbors is pure and utter fantasy in my opinion."

Dr Chad Gordon, professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery and neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins University, told BuzzFeed that, “There’s no way he’s going to hook up somebody’s brain to someone’s spinal cord and have them be functional.” 

“On the conservative side, we’re about 100 years away from being able to figure this out,” he continued. “If he’s saying two, and he’s promising a living, breathing, talking, moving human being? He’s lying.”

Dr Arthur Caplan told Forbes: “I think the most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.”

According to the Mirror, the Russian Orthodox Church has warned that the man whose head is to be transplanted would be blending souls and “going against God”.

When and where will the first human head transplant take place?

The first head transplant will likely take place before the end of 2017 in Harbin Medical University in China. 

Is there a head donor lined up?

Amazingly, there is. According to Canavero there was “folders” full of people willing to be the first to have his or her head transplanted onto another body. The person chosen is a 30-year-old Russian scientist named Valery Spiridonov. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease – a condition that causes muscle-wasting.

 According to reports, Spiridonov has begun efforts to crowdfund the money required for his procedure. 

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