The Plan

In February of 2015, we did an article about Sergio Canavero, a doctor who is associated with the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group. He wants to do a human head transplant. No. Seriously.

It may sound like something from a horror show but, if it works, it could help millions of people worldwide. There are a number of people who are suffering from muscle or nerve conditions that have rendered them paraplegic. There are many others who have advanced cancer in various parts of their bodies. For these people, a head transplant could greatly improve their quality of life or even save them, allowing them to live out the rest of their days without sickness.

Canavero claims that this procedure could really be done, and that it has a great chance at success. He claims that we have addressed most of the major hurdles preventing us from being able to accomplish this feat (for example,  he says we can now fuse the spinal cord and prevent the body’s immune system from rejecting the head).

And he has set a two year time frame for the surgery.

Yes, according to Canavero, the first head transplant might be done by 2017. It sounds, well, shocking, to be kind (though “entirely unbelievable” might be better suited).

The Problems

True, humanity has been doing transplants for quite some time. The first successful transplant was an 1883 thyroid transplant performed by Theodor Kocher, a surgeon and Nobel laureate. So we have had more than 130 years or medical advancements, but are these advancements enough?

Most doctors don’t think so.

Ultimately, the brain is the most complex machine known to humanity. The number of connections is simply staggering. Add to that all of the chemicals that are involved in (and impact) consciousness, and things get mindbogglingly complicated (bad pun, sorry).  Due to the complexity of the task, and our somewhat lacking understanding of the human brain, many surgeons are highly skeptical of this procedure. Highly skeptical.

But Valery Spiridonov doesn’t care.

Who is Valery Spiridonov?

Image Credit: VALERY SPIRIDONOV/Facebook
Image Credit: VALERY SPIRIDONOV/Facebook

Spiridonov is a 30 year-old Russian man who is suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a form of severe spinal muscular atrophy that makes it difficult for one to even support their own head (it also causes issues with swallowing, breathing, and other symptoms that are common to system-wide muscle wasting). Most people with this condition die before age 20, so Spiridonov is lucky in this regard, but apparently his prognosis is such that he volunteered for this extremely risky (and likely deadly) surgery.

If everything goes according to plan, Spiridonov will have his head removed and installed on another person’s body. But few experts (none that I could track down) have any hope for success. Rather, they believe that, at best,  the procedure will result in death.

Yet, it is easy to understand where Spiridonov is coming from. His quality of life is negligible, so why not give it a go? Death is inevitably anyways, and for Spiridonov, the timeframe is rather short.

However, some experts fear that this surgery will cause something far worse than death.

Worse Than Death?

Sergio Canavero
Sergio Canavero wants to attempt a human head transplant.

Ultimately, some of the world’s most prominent neurosurgeons think that the patient may be overwhelmed by the difference in brain chemistry and, as a result, experience a level of insanity never before witnessed.

In an email correspondence, Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, stated that insanity would likely result from “novel chemistry flooding the brain, unfamiliar input coming in from the nervous system of the body etc.” However, he clarified that death is the far more likely outcome, asserting that “the chance of death is certainly very high, given that animal studies are non-existent.”

And though it is easy to sympathize with Spiridonov’s point of view, Caplan had some rather harsh words for Canavero: “This guy has never said what magical agent he has that would heal the spinal cord…Google this guy. He has no real experience or publications in neurosurgery. I think he is, quite simply, a fraud in pursuit of PR.”

And Caplan is far from the only one damming this procedure.

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Robert Ruff, the Veterans Affairs national director for neurology, calls the procedure far-fetched and farcical, and he says that the feat (at present time) is next to impossible. He went on to say that this is more likely centuries away, not years. When asked for a realistic time-frame, “It would be impossible to predict that far into the future.”

Finally, Caplan asserts that we would all be better off focusing on real medical advancements, ones that might actually help people, not these sensationalized stories. And oddly enough, I find it next to impossible to disagree with him…