Although there are some very controversial things occurring in the world of medicine right now, some remarkable advancements are also being made, many of which are happening in the world of transplants. Not long ago, we published a story regarding the successful transplant of lab-grown human vaginas into four teenage girls, who are now adults. You can read more about that story here.
Now, news is emerging that the world’s first attempt to transplant a whole human head is on the agenda, and will be discussed this year at a surgical conference held by the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons in June. Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero, from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, believes that surgeons will be able to transplant the head of one patient onto a completely different body by 2017. He detailed how the procedure would go and what it would look like in a recent publication. (source)
“When the recipient wakes up, Canavero predicts they would be able to move and feel their face and would speak with the same voice. Physiotherapy would enable the person to walk within a year. Several people have already volunteered to get a new body.” (source)
Is A Human Head Transplant Scientifically Possible?
Dr. Canavero isn’t the first one to ponder these ideas. Xiao-Ping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China successfully performed a basic head transplant on a mouse (CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, doi.org/2d5). Ren and his team of researchers actually successfully managed to transplant the heads of 18 mice. After the transplant, all of the heads had normal brain functioning, they were able to blink and move their whiskers. Unfortunately, they were all paralyzed from the neck down and only survived for about three hours.
As a quick side note to plug into this article, while organizations and scientists still participate in animal testing, the number that refuse to do so continues to increase. Other options are widely available, and at this point, given the fact that those options can be utilized, it’s ridiculous that animal testing has not been banned all over the world. You can read more about that here.
In 1970, neurosurgeon Robert White successfully transplanted the head from one monkey onto the body of another. The monkey could still hear, see, smell, and taste because blood was successfully circulating to the brain, but it was also paralyzed and the immune system eventually rejected the foreign head and the monkey passed.
As you can see, it’s hard to imagine a surgery taking place on humans when there has been little success already. Apparently, the trick is to get the spinal cords to fuse, and the fact that the body automatically rejects any new tissue makes this incredibly difficult. Sure, there might be ways around it, but we seem far from discovering it.
Medical Ethics also comes into play.
“Another hurdle will be finding a country to approve such a transplant. Canavero would like to do the experiment in the US, but believes it might be easier to get approval somewhere in Europe. ‘The real stumbling block is the ethics,’ he says. ‘Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it.'” (source)
“This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely,” (source) says Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, Davis
What About The Brain? Would It Be The Same Person Coming Out Of The Operation As The One Who Went In?
One question that came to my head when I first came across this story was, “what about the brain?” This procedure is different from what would be considered a brain transplant, this is a head transplant, and does not involve removing the contents of the head before transplanting it onto another body.
Would the person be the same? If the person was the same, does that prove that our “identity” or “individuality” goes beyond the body and the brain? Would the person be different? Would the person have memories of the previous person? Would they feel the same? I know they would keep their own brain, but having the body of a completely different person would be quite something.
After all, studies have shown that our heartbeat and other factors and other inputs from our body can influence our emotions, our will, and and our language. But that’s a topic for another article.
There are so many questions here that go beyond medicine, and into ethics and philosophy all the way into consciousness. The thing is, we will never truly know until a successful procedure has taken place.
Here is a video of Dr. Sergio Canavero sharing his thoughts and ideas:
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