Head Transplant Performed on Monkey, Claims Surgeon

The controversial neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero says his plan to perform a human head transplant is moving forward now that he’s successfully performed the experiment on mice and a monkey, reports Sam Wong at New Scientist.

“I would say we have plenty of data to go on,” Canavero told New Scientist. “It’s important that people stop thinking this is impossible. This is absolutely possible and we’re working towards it.”

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Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, first raised eyebrows about the procedure as far back as 2013 when he first started considering it. Early last year he told New Scientist about the plan, and then last September, he announced he had a volunteer: Valery Spiridonov, 30, who has been diagnosed with a genetic muscle-wasting condition called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease.

The procedure Spiridonov would have to endure sounds horrifying. First, his body and the body of his donor would be cooled to a very low temperature. Next, the neck and spinal cord would be cut with an exceptionally sharp knife to reduce any tissue damage.

After being treated with a substance called polyethylene glycol, a chemical that preserves nerve cell membranes, Spiridonov’s head would then be fused to the donor body.

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Canavero said he would draw upon other techniques to promote recovery, such as stimulating the spinal cord and using a negative pressure device to create a vacuum that would encourage the nerves of the head to fuse to those in the donor spine.

During all of this, the patient would remain in a drug-induced coma for about four months until healing took place.

To show that the procedure could work, experimental work has been done on cadavers, mice and a monkey, Canavero told New Scientist. With the monkey, he said they cooled the head to -15 °C for the operation and that the monkey survived without neurological injury. It had to be euthanized 20 hours later for ethical reasons.

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So far, none of Canavero’s work has been documented in peer-reviewed journals, including his alleged work on mice and monkeys. New Scientist reports that Canavero is set to publish seven papers in the journals Surgery and CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics over the next few months, and although the reporters have seen unconfirmed images and video of mice and monkeys who’ve undergone the surgery, they’ve not been given advance access to the papers.

Announcing the research before it’s published and can be critiqued by other scientists is generally frowned up on scientific circles. It creates excitement before excitement is warranted, Thomas Cochrane, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School’s Centre for Bioethics told New Scientist.

Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University School of Medicine, said “When it gets published in a peer-reviewed journal, I’ll be interested. I think the rest of it is BS.”

Canavero, who plans to perform the surgery in 2017, said he’s pursuing this line of research to help people who are completely paralyzed.

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