Tired of your body: The future of head transplants

An Italian surgeon suggests that first head transplant will be possible in 2017.

Sergio Canavero, a surgeon part of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, claims that head transplants, or full body transplants as it is more correctly referred to as, could be possible in just two years. The full body transplant includes putting a living person’s head on to a donor body.

Dr Canavero first introduced the idea in 2013. He wants to use the procedure to extend the lives of people who suffer from multi-organ failures, muscle and nerve degeneration and of those whose organs are damaged by cancer.


Image Credit: University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences (Flickr)

Dr Canavero plans to announce the project at the next annual conference for neurological surgeons  in Maryland, US, in June. At the meeting he hopes to attract other surgeons willing to explore the controversial procedure. He has said that several people have already volunteered to get a new body. The procedure is estimated to take 100 surgeons, 36 hours and to cost at least €10 million.

The procedure

The surgeons would cool down the head of the patient and the body of the donor, so the cells do not die off during the operation. This “hypothermia mode” prevents the brain from suffering from any neurological damages. Firstly, the neck is cut and the vessels are linked up with tubes. Secondly, the spinal cord is cut with an exceptionally sharp knife. The head is then moved on to the donor body.

The most crucial part of the operation is to not cause damage to the nerves. Dr Canavero argues that the usage of the chemical polyethylene glycol speeds up the fusing of the two ends of the spinal cord. He also states that by fusing the spinal cord nerves together, one allows the patient’s brain to communicate with the donor body.


Image Credit: Shaheen Lakhan (Flickr)

After the surgery the patient will be put into a coma for weeks, to prevent any movements. Dr Canavero estimates that, once awake, the patient should be able to speak and feel the face and after a year of physiotherapy be able to move the body.

If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it, in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else.

Dr Sergio Canavero, Guardian, February 25, 2015

 Even though Canavero argues that medical science is advanced enough to perform a full body transplant, other surgeons are not easily convinced. Many of them believe that there are too many technical difficulties which cannot be solved in the near future, let alone within the next two years. Some surgeons even called the procedure “too outlandish” and to be an unserious idea as well as unethical.

One ethical objection concerning the procedure was whether it is fair for one person to receive a full donor body, when the separate organs of that donor could instead save several lives.

14824553752_d2f3e85153_oImage Credit: Juanedc (Flickr)

In Forbes, Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center wrote, “[Canavero’s] ambitions have gotten plenty of attention this week. They should. It is both rotten scientifically and lousy ethically.” He continued, “To remove a head on to someone else’s body requires the rewiring of the spinal cord. We don’t know how to do that. If we did there would be far fewer paralysed people who have spinal cord injuries.”

One of the opposing arguments is that the biggest problem is to connect the ends of the spinal cord and to make them work. If this were possible, people with spinal injuries would already have had the surgery.

There is also a concern regarding the psychological aspects of the transplant. There have been various cases where people have felt detached from their new limbs and ended up removing them. What would then be the consequences for a patient feeling estranged from their entire body.

Would a brain integrate new signals, perceptions, information from a body different from the one it was familiar with? I think the most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.

Arthur Caplan, Forbes, February 26, 2015


Image credit: Arno Kleissl (Flickr)

The notion of a ‘head transplant’ has existed in the human imagination for quite some time. One of Hindus greatest gods Ganesha was decapitated by his father and later revived after given an elephant head as a replacement.

Early fiction such as Mary Kelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ from 1818 and ‘Professor Dowell’s Head’ by Alexander Belyayev from 1925, played with the thought of head transplants, revival from death and the scientific creation of a human.


Image Credit: Insomnia Cured Here (Flickr)

Head- or full body transplants have been done before, however, not on humans. The first transplant was performed by Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov in 1954. Dr Demikhov undertook several attempts to attach a puppy’s head and forelegs onto the back of a larger dog. The dogs were only to survive for a couple of days.

In 1970 neurosurgeon Robert White and his team at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, US, performed a head transplant on monkeys. The operation was generally considered successful, however the monkey could not move its body since they did not attempt to join the spinal cord and was unable to breathe without artificial assistance. After nine days the monkey died when the body’s immune system rejected the head.

We will have to wait another two years to see whether Dr Canavero’s controversial idea actually will become reality. There seems to be technical, medical, ethical and psychological issues to consider before taking the big leap in to the future of full body transplants.


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