You may have heard that an Italian neuroscientist, Sergio Canavero, is planning something straight out of a bad movie: He’s going to do a full-on head transplant. But how is this even possible? Let’s break out what’s going on and why.
He’s not actually going to transplant some poor schmuck’s head onto somebody else’s body, is he?
Well, that’s the theory! Canavero thinks it’s going to be possible by 2017.
Wait… “thinks it’s going to be possible?”
Yeah. What a lot of the headlines have left off is that right now, this is theoretical. That said, Canavero announced this along with some fairly important research that clears one of the major hurdles, namely fusing a spinal cord that’s been separated.
It’s not perfect. Canavero notes that only 15 percent of the neurons will connect in the best case scenario. Still, that’s enough to talk, move the face and, with physical therapy, walk.
Is that the only problem?
No, rejection is still a pretty serious issue. Even with modern medicine, the body still tends to see a single organ inserted into it as an intruder. Who knows how it’s going to react with a whole new head bolted onto it? It might go full Scanners for all we know.
Who would even volunteer for this?
Therein, of course, lies another problem. You need somebody with a healthy body and absolutely no chance of brain activity and somebody with a healthy brain willing to let an Italian neurosurgeon behead them and perform a surgery that might not work. Canavero claims he has volunteers, but we’ll see if that holds up once the rubber meets the road.
Why does he even think it would work?
We’ve been transplanting heads on animals for years. Here’s a link, but we wouldn’t recommend clicking it unless you want to be really, really sad for, like, a week.
Can I take a moment to insert a meme here that explains how I feel?
To be fair to Canavero, he’s not arguing that this should be a regular procedure. Really, this is mostly being done because of the valuable techniques we can learn to treat more common problems, like spinal injuries. The more we learn about reconnecting nerves and healing delicate parts of the human body, the better off we’ll be as a society.
That said, I’m actually pretty sure this will never happen outside of perhaps one or two procedures. Doing it ethically is pretty close to impossible, and even if those particular stars align, the psychological impact might simply be too much. Even a hand transplant can be absolutely overwhelming from a psychiatric perspective, and those issues would only be magnified with a full-body transplant. If you’re 40 and you suddenly have the body of a 20-year-old, how will the brain react?
It’s more likely the techniques we might learn from this will be pioneered elsewhere, and this will remain a pipe dream. If not, let’s at least hope it’s more The Man with Two Brains than The Thing with Two Heads.