Is a Head Transplant Really Going to Happen?

After the first candidate opted for more traditional methods, the name of the new patient that will have the world's first head transplant has not yet been released. No matter who it is, there's no denying that this will be a tremendous breakthrough in medical science.
Is a Head Transplant Really Going to Happen?

Last update: 15 December, 2019

The world’s very first human head transplant is on the cards, and a certain neurosurgeon is hoping to do one soon.

Going beyond the controversy and ethical considerations – which are many – this revolutionary surgery has the scientific community on the edge of their seats.

In 2017, Valery Spiridonov was named as the first patient that would undergo the transplant. However, the young man decided to decline the offer. Then it was rumored that a Chinese patient would be the first “guinea pig”.

A neurosurgeon’s dream, a challenge that science has not yet met

The surgeon who will carry out a head transplant.

Sergio Canavero is a member of the Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Turin, Italy.

As he explained in the interview, his dream as a scientist has been to become the first doctor to perform a successful head transplant.

“Successful” is the key word here. Up to now, all attempts done on animals have failed.

Dr. Canavero explains that technology has not been up to the task of such a challenge. However, now there are fewer technological obstacles, more qualified professionals, and much more sophisticated means. All of this significantly ups the chance of success.

On the other hand, despite a large part of the scientific community being against it, our 21st century “Frankenstein” bases part of his work on the only person to have transplanted the head of a primate onto another body. This milestone was achieved by Dr. Robert White in the 1970’s. However, he didn’t manage to connect the most vital part: the nervous system.

It was in 2013 when neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero wrote an article where he explained the viability of the head transplant with a series of evident reasons. This includes the fact that we now have the technology to establish a proper connection with the spinal cord.

The project–it seems–is more than viable.

A head transplant: a coming reality?

According to Dr. Canavero, it could mean several things.

  • The ability to give paraplegics back their mobility
  • The recipient of the “new body” may be able to avoid diseases like cancer, nerve degeneration, and many other serious medical conditions

Nevertheless, the ethical implications, as well as the ethical-religious controversies, are many.

The steps so far

A surgeon with his patient.

Valery Spiridonov was the prized patient up until now. This man suffered from spinal muscular atrophy and had very few possibilities in life.

However, after two years of work with Dr. Canavero, the doctor couldn’t promise him what he so yearned for: that he would walk again, have a normal life, or that he would even survive the surgery.

Thus, the young Russian decided to undergo a much more “conservative” surgery. It would let him face his remaining days with less pain and more dignity.

Then Dr. Sergio Canavero found another disabled patient with serious mobility problems to continue his project with.

The country that offered the most assistance was China. In a press conference in China, they announced that the revolutionary surgery would take place in a hospital specially prepared for it.

The exact date is not yet known.

So far, it all seems to be looking up. The risk of rejection, for example, is nonexistent, they explained, because the brain is a “neutral” organ, unlike the heart, liver, or kidneys.

Fortunately, they have the best team and the best means.

Hopes are very high and all that’s left is to await the outcome of this project. As amazing, controversial and nerve-wracking as it may be, it may turn the world of science and medicine upside down.

Meanwhile, we’ll be awaiting new information…

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  • Lamba N, Holsgrove D, Broekman ML. The history of head transplantation: a review. Acta Neurochir (Wien). 2016;158(12):2239–2247. doi:10.1007/s00701-016-2984-0
  • Ren X, Canavero S. Human head transplantation. Where do we stand and a call to arms. Surg Neurol Int. 2016;7:11. Published 2016 Jan 28. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.175074
  • Furr A, Hardy MA, Barret JP, Barker JH. Surgical, ethical, and psychosocial considerations in human head transplantation. Int J Surg. 2017;41:190–195. doi:10.1016/j.ijsu.2017.01.077