The First Human Head Transplant

Illustration by Mimi Shang

Illustration by Mimi Shang

Since the mid 20th century, advances in medicine have allowed doctors to save patients from terminal diseases that eat away at life-giving organs— diseases that had previously been death sentences. From the first kidney transplant in 1954 to the first full face transplant in 2010, the boundaries of medicine have been continually pushed forward towards its latest culmination in the first human head transplant, which will take place in December of 2017.
Planned by Dr. Sergio Canavero, the procedure will involve a massive team of 150 surgeons who will use clinically-induced hypothermia to preserve a donor’s body from the neck down, while carefully decapitating the patient, Valery Spiridonov, who has been diagnosed with terminal spinal muscular atrophy and been approved for the transplant. Valery’s head will then be connected to a machine to be mechanically respired while the donor’s body is prepared, and then his head will be attached to the body.
Technically, the procedure is extremely uncertain and carries a high risk of death if performed improperly. Cuts of the spine have to be perfectly clean to ensure that polyethylene glycol can be used to reconnect the spinal cord to the brain, requiring great precision. All the blood vessels and nerves have to be reattached in under an hour to prevent permanent brain damage, putting pressure on surgeons to work quickly. In addition, the patient has to be placed in a coma for three to four weeks after the procedure to give time for nerves to heal, in order for there to be any hope of communication between the newly attached body and the brain. Additionally, beforehand, the recipient and donor must be precise matches in immunotype to prevent complications from immune response, the largest issue that impedes organ transplants today. Even if all the known conflicts become resolved successfully, there are additional questions being raised about whether the patient could both adapt to the new body effectively and mentally cope with the procedure, as spinal cord injuries still remain largely untreatable. Although head transplants have been completed on monkeys with debatable success, it is uncertain whether the monkey could have recovered enough to move its new body, and conducting procedures on humans that haven’t been fully successful on primate models is very risky.
In addition to the many medical uncertainties surrounding the procedure, detractors of Dr. Canavero argue that the ethical implications of a full head transplant are numerous and could lead to issues similar to or greater than those that still surround organ transplants. Currently, there is a large black market for human organs in many countries, leading to organ trafficking and murder, something that could expand in the far future to involve head transplants if they become successful and routine, as people seek extended lives. Also, the full nature of the mind-body connection is largely unknown, and psychologists fear that a head transplant could lead to an extreme form of insanity, as novel chemical signals would enter the mind and interact with a differently wired brain.
Despite all the unpredictability of the procedure, the possibility of a head transplant is exciting and another step into the future. Whether successful or not, the procedure will create waves in the medical world, creating debate on its morality as well as bringing about new knowledge on the intricate connections between the mind, the body and personal identity.




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