The human head transplant: 2019 updates

by Antonia Alalitei


Would you consider science fiction worthy a head transplant in 2019? Were it to happen, how many speculations could you come up with on how things could turn out? Would the person whose head is transplanted be the same? What would happen to consciousness? For now, anything we may imagine cannot be verified, but there are currently people pushing to find these answers.


The aspiring pioneer: Sergio Canavero

Back in 1954, Joseph Murray was the first to ever perform a successful kidney transplant on twins, with the organ functioning for 8 years after the respective procedure. Quite unsurprisingly, prior to this major breakthrough, the attempts of doctors like Murray were frowned upon by critiques who were claiming that scientists were “playing God” and working towards violation of nature itself.

And here we are, less than 100 years later, with hundreds of thousand of organs having been successfully transplanted in already perfectly routine procedures. However, back in 2015, it felt as if 1954 had been revived, when neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero took the world by storm with his proposal of the human head transplant due to happen in 2 years. Previous experiments on mice and monkeys, where the animals had been kept alive for a limited amount of time, led Dr. Canavero to believe that the procedure could be applied to humans, aiming to heal patients with severe motor diseases. The first volunteer willing to undergo this procedure was supposed to be a 31-year-old Russian patient,Valery Spiridonov, who had a fatal genetic muscle-wasting disease.


How would the procedure have happened?

The simplest way of describing the core of this procedure is as follows: a healthy person with a faulty body would have their head cut off and refused with a donor body, coming from a clinically dead patient. For this, the body and the head would be cooled down considerably, to the limit where the brain is clinically dead. Subsequently, a diamond blade would be used for a perfectly clean cut of the head, ending with the fusion of head with the healthy donor body, using a special chemical called PEG, that encourages the regeneration of neuron terminations.

Dr. Canavero made a couple of interesting additions to make the world wonder: the motor highway coming from the brain through the spinal cord is like a spaghetti bundle, with millions of neural fibers allowing the brain to control the motor actions of the body. However, he claimed that not all of these fibers need to be reconnected for complete motor control to be recovered.

He also opened up the question of regaining young age by performing this “heaven” procedure: choosing a younger donor body would have a rejuvenating effect on the brain, increasing life expectancy as never before. He was also confident to state that consciousness would most certainly be preserved, due to testimonies from many patients who had experienced clinical death and recuperated their inner selves.


Where do we stand 4 years later?

Despite the critiques from the scientific world in Europe and the US, Canavero moved on with his research, teaming up with Ren Xiaoping, a doctor from mainland China, to continue his attempts for the first human head transplant. As his initial volunteer dropped out of the procedure since his son was born, Canavero redirected his work to experiements on corpses, with the next aim being the trial on people with persistent vegetative conditions.

No graspable evidence towards the quintessence of all these efforts into a success has been recorded, with the medical and bioethical world putting forward a variety of reasons why failure might be around the corner: immune system rejection which would lead to incompatibility, the insufficient connections of the neural fibers, the impossibility of the neuron terminals to regenerate and an entire batch of speculations with respect to how consciousness would transform, were all the physiological milestones be overcome. Only time will tell whether this story will turn into reality anytime in the future.