It sounds like complete nonsense or the plot to a terrible science fiction movie, but the possibility of a human head transplant may become a reality as early as next year. The procedure has been successfully carried out on animals prompting Dr. Sergio Canavero, an Italian neuroscientist, to announce his plans for a human trial in 2017. Dr. Xiaoping Ren, a Chinese surgeon, agreed to assist Dr. Canavero, which only left a human volunteer to complete the procedure.
Valery Spiridonov, a Russian man suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, volunteered this week to have his head surgically removed and transplanted onto a donor body. His disease is a severe form spinal muscular atrophy that usually manifests in infants less than 6 months old. Werdnig-Hoffman disease causes rapid degeneration of nerve cells in the lower brainstem and spinal cord. The destruction of motor neurons causes incredible muscle weakness leading to death as heart and lung functions deteriorate.
Spiridonov is trapped in his own body and confined to a wheel chair. He can do little more than feed himself and move his wheelchair with a simple joystick. In an interview with the magazine The Atlantic, Spiridonov said, “Removing all the sick parts but the head would do a great job in my case. I couldn’t see any other way to treat myself.”
The transplant procedure is Spiridonov’s last and only hope at anything remotely resembling a normal life. The surgery could cost anywhere from $10 million to $100 million and require up to 80 surgeons.
According to CBS News, critics of the procedure accuse Dr. Canavero and Dr. Ren of creating false hope in a procedure that could easily result in the patient’s death. Nonetheless, Dr. Canavero plans to move forward basing the procedure on successful animal trials that have been published in the peer reviewed journal Surgical Neurology International.
The procedure requires a specific donor like any other organ transplant. The patient’s body will be cooled to a temperature of 50 °F (10 °C), which will prevent brain death for nearly an hour. The heads of both the patient and donor would be removed simultaneously. A special chemical known as polyethylene glycol (PEG) will be used to fuse the donor’s spinal column to the patient. According to CBS News, PEG aids in the regrowth of spinal cord cellular tissue.
Following the procedure, the patient would be kept in a forced coma for nearly a month to prevent movement while implanted electrodes stimulate nerve function. Dr. Canavero is confident the procedure will work as he claims a “90 percent plus” possibility of success.
— CBS News (@CBSNews) August 30, 2016