Do you have a good head on your shoulders? No? Then perhaps you should get a new one. The idea may not be as far-fetched as you think. Italian neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Canavero has announced his plans to perform the first ever human head transplant next year.
However, the announcement was met with fierce opposition and a healthy dose of skepticism, with many pointing to the ethics of the ambitious mission. Moreover, others went as far to suggest that the doctor should be charged for murder if the operation fails. Looks like some heads are going to be rolling if this procedure fails.
Heading in the Right Direction
Despite the opposition and criticism, Dr. Canavero has some scientific grounds for his master plan. The ambitious researcher has published a detailed plan on how he plans to carry out the procedure. Furthermore, the experiment has already been successfully tested in mice.
The plan involves first finding a suitable donor in a coma and getting permission from the family to carry out the operation. Thereafter, a team of 80 surgeons would cool both bodies before decapitating the heads. After that, the head is attached and the recipient receives multiple doses of a chemical called polyethylene glycol (PEG) to help fuse the spinal cord. Sounds simple enough, right?
One Head Transplant is Better Than Two
As the plan takes shape, Canavero has already recruited a Chinese surgeon, Dr. Xiaoping Ren to work alongside him. In addition, a Canadian graduate student, William Sikkema, has received the nod to help with the fusing of the spinal cord. And most importantly, the team has found a volunteer patient for the operation — a Russian man named Valery Spiridonov.
Spiridonov suffers from a rare and often fatal genetic disorder called Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease. The illness breaks down muscles and kills nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leaving the patient paralyzed. Spiridonov is currently confined to a wheelchair and has limited mobility. However, Canavero claims that the multi-million dollar head transplant procedure has a “90 percent plus” chance of success.
Head Case or Not?
Many in the scientific community have rallied against Canavero’s plan and accused him of promoting pseudoscience and giving false hope. In addition to the ethical ramifications, they point to certain legal issues. If the operation is a success and Spiridonov goes on to have children, the offspring will have the donor’s genetics. So what legal rights would the donor’s family have in such a situation?
Whatever happens, we are heading into a brave new world full of new possibilities and an equal number of obstacles to navigate. Scientific progress always has a price. But is it worth it in this case? That sure is a head scratcher…