Heading for the Future

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-6-35-41-pmHe’s been called “Dr. Frankenstein” and dismissed as “out of his mind.” He has successfully created living two-headed mice, and fully expects to receive the Nobel Prize someday. He even published a book on seduction techniques in the 90s called Donne Scoperte (translation: Women Uncovered).

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Dr. Canavero.

Surgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero from Italy claims, perhaps overconfidently, that he will perform the world’s first head transplant in December of this year, despite a barrage of surgical, ethical, and financial hurdles.

According to the Observer, the procedure involves the following rather grisly steps:

“Dr. Canavero will begin his attempt by cooling the volunteer’s body to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and severing both his head and the brain-dead donor’s head from their respective bodies and spinal cords. Polyethylene glycol will be used to connect the volunteer’s head with the spinal cord of the donor’s body. The plan is to induce the volunteer into a coma for a month while blood and new nerve networks rebuild in hopes that the body doesn’t reject the head—an inherent type of risk in all transplant procedures. In addition to the spine, [the] head will also have to be reconnected to airways, the esophagus and blood vessels.”

The idea raises a host of interesting questions. First, in actuality, who is the “donor”? We tend to think of our identities as housed in our brains, but plenty of non-Western cultures think that the heart is our center of consciousness. Plus, burgeoning research proves that bacteria in our digestive system determines much of our mood and behavior.

Also, assuming the procedure is successful, if the surviving patient has a child, whose child will it actually be?

And, far in the future, if this “head transplant” thing actually catches on, where will we find all the bodies willing to be sacrificed to support our heads? (By the way, Dr. Canavero’s answer: “Cloning will come into play.”)

If all of this is starting to remind you of Re-Animator, you’re not alone. The majority of the scientific community is skeptical of Dr. Canavero’s project; his hospital in Italy even fired him back in 2015. But thus far, his trial experiments with animals have been successful. Most recently, he severed the spinal cords of 9 rats and fused them back together, and 8 of the rats survived and were able to move afterward without any side effects.

But can this be repeated with a human being? It certainly seems improbable, because of very real medical concerns, like keeping the severed head “alive” long enough and preventing the excruciating pain (which one critic predicted would be “worse than death”) that may result as the body adjusts to its foreign addition.

Nevertheless, Dr. Canavero still seems to be forging ahead (pun intended) with his ambitious plan.

Read more here and here. (And thanks to my friend and star neuroscientist Karen for first making me aware of this news!)

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2 thoughts on “Heading for the Future

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