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Human head transplants? Neurosurgeon says ‘we have the technology’

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An Italian neuroscientist says that human head transplants are possible using currently available medical techniques. And he's setting up a project to prove it.

Dr. Sergio Canavero, who works for the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, published his proposal in the medical journal Surgical Neurology International —and he's calling it the "Head Anastomois Venture," or HEAVEN — the "first human head transplantation with spinal linkage."

The greatest technical hurdle to such endeavor, he says, is the reconnection of the donor's and recipient's spinal cords.

"It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage," he writes in the proposal. "This paper sketches out a possible human scenario and outlines the technology to reconnect the severed cord (project GEMINI). It is argued that several up to now hopeless medical conditions might benefit from such procedure."

Canavero bases his plan on a similar experiment on Rhesus monkeys in the 1970s in which subjects survived for eight days.

Critics argue that his plan is predicated on "bad science."

Depiction of the first total cephalosomatic exchange in a monkey (from White et al. 1971)Depiction of the first total cephalosomatic exchange in a monkey (from White et al. 1971)

To make it work, the operation would involve the simultaneous severing of two human heads with an "ultra-sharp blade," followed by cooling and flushing out the “recipient” head before attaching its new body with an advanced polymer “glue”.

He suggests that the realigning of head and body could also be achieved using “electrofusion.”

"Interestingly, electricity can be exploited to achieve axonal fusion," he writes. "This method is at the moment not a suitable alternative for GEMINI, but it should be explored in this context."

Canavero admits that his polymer gel reattachment method (known as GEMINI) would not be perfect, but adds that “as little as 10 per cent of descending spinal tracts are sufficient for some voluntary control of locomotion in man.”

He says that the procedure could be available in about two years, and that a team of 100 surgeons could perform the operation in 36 hours — and at a cost of $12.9 million.

In regards to the ethics of human brain transplantation, Canavero concludes his study by saying that he "has not addressed the ethical aspects of HEAVEN." But he concedes that it must be faced.

"The HEAVEN created 'chimera' would carry the mind of the recipient but, should he or she reproduce, the offspring would carry the genetic inheritance of the donor," he writes. "However, it is equally clear that horrible conditions without a hint of hope of improvement cannot be relegated to the dark corner of medicine. This paper lays out the groundwork for the first successful human head transplant."


July 3 2013, 18:06

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