Science Channel - InSCIder

2 Oct

Put Your Head on My Shoulder

Surgeon-250x150

And no, we're not talking metaphorically about romance, as in the 1963 Paul Anka classic, later covered ably by 1970s teen idol Leif Garrett. We're talking literally here, about the possibility of surgically transplanting your noggin on someone else's body.

When I last wrote about head transplantation in this 2009 blog post, it still seemed like a fairly remote prospect, given the problem of connecting a transplanted head to the donor body's spinal cord. But now, in a newly published article in the medical journal Surgical Neurology International, Italian surgeon and neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group argues that recent developments in the use of fusogens--basically, plastic membranes that can be used to connect severed nerve fibers and allow the transmission of nerve impulses--now have eliminated that obstacle. He even describes a theoretical procedure for performing such a transplant. As he explains to Oggi.it, an Italian news website: "The head transplant in humans is technically possible. And in a couple of years could be a reality. " 

While some tabloid headlines have likened Dr. Canavero to a real-life version of Dr. Frankensein, he's actually a reputable scientist who's made headlines before; In 2008, he made headlines by using electical stimulation to awaken a car accident victim who'd been in a persistent vegetative state for two years, a procedure detailed in this 2009 scientific journal article.

As Qz.com explains, the procedure outlined by Canavero for his  “head anastomosis venture” is very similar to the one used by the late American neurosurgeon Robert White, who back in 1970 experimentally attached a monkey head to another monkey's body. Basically, the surgical team would wheel two living bodies--the one with the head to be transplanted, and the body of a brain-dead organ donor--into the operating room. Then the bodies would be cooled to induce hypothermia, and an extremely sharp blade would be used to cut the two spinal cords simultaneously. Then, the donor body's spinal cord would be chemically fused to the recipient head's spinal cord, using a polymer. 

That may sound crazy, but not so much when you view it in the context of other recent breakthroughs in spinal cord regeneration. In June, for example, resesarchers announced that they've been able to  in part through the use of a chemical that breaks through scar tissue.

Not everyone buys that Dr. Canavero's procedure would work. One skeptic is Dr. Jerry Silver, who worked with White and recently made headlines as part of a team of Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic researchers who coaxed rats' severed spinal cords into reconnecting. In a CBS News interview, Dr. Silver derided Canavero's idea as "pure and utter fantasy" and "bad science."

But let's assume that as Dr. Canavero told ABC News, “the problem here is not really technical but is completely ethical.” While the ability to put your head on someone else's body offers new hope for quadriplegics and people suffering from other debilitating illnesses that leave the brain intact, head transplants raise a slew of dilemmas as well. As Popsci.com notes, in order to perfect the operation, surgeons first would have to perform multiple run-throughs using primates, which ethics committees at research institutions may be reluctant to approve. And when it comes time to actually perform the procedure on a human patient, finding a donor body that's otherwise healthy but lacks a functioning brain could be a bit, well, tricky. If you think the international black market in donor organs is scary, just think what might happen if criminal gangs in relatively lawless countries discover a market for entire healthy bodies. 

So what do you think? If head transplants are possible, are they a good idea, or is this a concept that should be relegated to science fiction? Express your opinion below.

Check out this segment from Dark Matters about head transplants. 

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