April 24, 2015

HEADY STUFF:  An Italian neurosurgeon named Sergio Canavero claims he plans to conduct the world’s first head transplant soon, and it should only take about an hour.  Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia, is the first person to volunteer for the procedure.  Spiridonov suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare, genetic spinal muscular atrophy disease.

In a meeting of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons this June, Dr. Canavero plans to detail the specifics of his surgical procedure.   In a February article in the Surgical Neurology International Journal, Canavero described the basics of how he plans to fuse the spinal cord of Spiridonov’s head with that of the donor (cadaveric) body.  The goal, according to Dr. Canavero, is “immortality.”  Apparently, elderly wealthy individuals are already lining up for this procedure, in the hopes of replacing their frail, older bodies with fresh, 20-something ones.

NYU Bioethicist Arthur Caplan says Dr. Canavero’s plans are unethical, because the surgical technique for spinal surgery isn’t perfected, the chance of immunosupressive rejection is high, and the brain may not be able to “integrate” with a body with which it isn’t familiar.  According to Caplan, “[T]he most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.”

Dr. Canavero seems to be a legitimate neurosurgeon with the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, but his obsession with becoming the first successful surgeon to perform a head transplant is a bit Frankenstein-y.   He does seems more legitimate, however, than some prior high profile oddballs, such as Dr. Richard Seed, who made a big splash in the late 1990s when he proclaimed he wanted to perform the first human cloning.

But then again, recent media reports suggested that Dr. Canavero’s talk of head transplants was all an odd publicity stunt for a video game called Metal Gear Solid.  But just today, it’s being reported that Dr. Canavero has filed a sworn affidavit with Italian police, denying that he has anything to do with the game maker, and that it’s using his likeness without his permission.

If Dr. Canavero is legit, this could be the beginning of a very interesting chapter in transplant history.  I think it would be pretty weird, though, to put an older person’s head on a hot, young body.  I kind of liked the old school notion of  achieving immortality via the ‘brain in a jar” scenario.  But bodies are nice.  Stay tuned.

brain in a jar

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