A Blog by

Human Head Transplant Proposed—How Did We Get Here?

Yes, in case you haven’t heard, a doctor in Italy has announced plans to transplant a guy’s head onto a new body two years from now. Sound nuts?

Many of the headlines say so. “No, Human Head Transplants Will Not Be Possible by 2017,” said Popular Science. The International Business Times pronounced head transplants “not a thing.”

When I started talking about this at work, reactions included words like crazy, and impossible. There were jokes about Ted Williams’ head, currently frozen in Arizona and awaiting a new body. Meanwhile, stories started popping up from online gamers suggesting the whole thing was a hoax designed to sell video games.

But I’m not so sure we should blow this off, whether it’s going to happen in 2017 or not. The more I read about the history of transplants, and spinal cord surgery, and experiments involving monkey heads, the more questions I have. And the less it all seems like a joke.

Experiments are already happening in animals, and the proposed human transplant does not appear to be a marketing hoax: the neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, is presenting his plans in June at a surgical conference.

If he does actually try to go through with it, suddenly head transplants will be a thing. And even if the plan fizzles, we might want to figure out whether we even want to go there, before someone does.

And what would we make of it if someone did go there? It might well be impossible to deliver what the public might expect: a person who walks around perfectly normal except for their mismatched body. But what if a head-transplant patient—say someone who was dying of an incurable disease, or a quadriplegic with failing organs—were to live several years attached to a paralyzed body? Is that a success?

Then there are the legal and ethical issues, and dollars-and-cents practicalities. Is it OK to use an entire body to save one person, when the organs could save many? Will we pay for it? Would you, if you could save your husband or wife’s head? (Answer that one carefully.)

Canavero leads a think tank called Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, and he wrote a paper proposing his GEMINI spinal-cord fusion procedure in February. Here’s a TEDx talk he gave about his plan (in English; and a more recent talk in Italian).

 

The head in question is that of Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian computer programmer who stepped forward in April as a volunteer; the body would come from a brain-dead donor. Spiridonov suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a degenerative genetic condition that affects nerves and muscles. He has not walked since he was one year old, according to an interview with Motherboard, which also spoke to Canavero.

The challenges would include keeping his brain alive during the transfer, piecing together the severed spinal cords and getting them to communicate, and keeping the body from rejecting the head, to name a few. This article by Helen Thomson in New Scientist gives the best overview I’ve seen so far of the procedure and hurdles.

There are plenty of fascinating science questions that I hope to write about later, but first, let’s look at the history. Have head transplants been done with anything that could be considered success in other animals?

To be clear, I’m not condoning the experiments below. Many wouldn’t muster with today’s animal research standards, which exist for good reason. But we can look at a few of the milestones in head swapping.

1908: Head added to dog. Charles Guthrie grafted one dog’s head onto another’s neck, attaching arteries so that blood flowed first to the decapitated head, then to the other head. The head was without blood flow for about 20 minutes, and regained only minimal movement.

1950s: More two-headed dogs. Vladimir Demikhov, a pioneer in human heart and lung transplants, grafted the upper bodies of young dogs onto the shoulders of other dogs, creating dogs with two heads, both able to move, see, and even lap up water. Without drugs to prevent rejection by the immune system, most lived only a few days, but one reportedly held out for 29 days. (See images from LIFE magazine’s 1959 story here. Warning: may be disturbing.)

People weren’t too happy about these experiments at the time. Even a tribute to the late Dr. Demikhov notes that it was unclear to many other surgeons what medical value the grafted dogs held.

1965: Dog brain transplant. Robert White of Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital transplanted the brains of six dogs into the necks of other dogs, to show that the brains could be kept alive in another body. The brains showed EEG activity and took up oxygen and glucose. No word on what, if anything, they made of being trapped in a neck.

1970: First head transplant in a monkey. Robert White transplants the entire head of a rhesus monkey onto another monkey’s body. The monkey could see, hear, and taste, but White did not attempt to fuse the spinal cord. The monkey lived for several days after the surgery (reports vary from three to nine days). (See Motherboard’s video interview with White about his work below.)

2002: Low-temp head transplant in a rat. Scientists in Japan graft infant rats’ heads onto the thighs of adults, to test cooling the brain  to prevent brain damage with oxygen loss. The young rats’ brains continued to develop for three weeks.

2013: Canavero proposes human head transplant. In Surgical Neurology International, he outlines a procedure involving a clean cut to the spinal cord to minimize damage and using polyethylene glycol (PEG) to fuse the spinal cord.

2014: Head transplants in mice. Xiao-Ping Ren and colleagues in China report a head-swapping experiment in mice, resulting in a white mouse with a black head, and vice versa. The mice live up to three hours after being removed from a ventilator. That’s not long, but by keeping the donor body’s brainstem, the body is able to continue to control its own heartbeat and breathing.

February 2015: Canavero details head-transplant procedure. In an editorial in Surgical Neurology International, Canavero proposes cooling the head and donor body to limit cell damage from oxygen loss, and fusing the spinal cord with a process called GEMINI, which uses PEG and electrical stimulation, which has been shown in other studies to promote spinal cord repair.

So, some success, depending how you define it, though I doubt these results will have many people rushing to the front of the line for a head transplant.

To follow the latest on Canavero’s proposal, I’ll be at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons meeting in Annapolis this June when he gives a keynote address on head transplantation.

37 thoughts on “Human Head Transplant Proposed—How Did We Get Here?

  1. Aside from the 12 cranial nerves, the carotid artery and veins, I don’t know that there is much more to be joined to create an intact individual. If, in my naivety, I am correct then the operation wouldn’t be extraordinarily complex. Whether the procedure would work is another question, entirely. But if it did, I can see the benefit for people like Steven Hawking, for example. For that matter, and delving into the realm of science fiction, it would be a start on creating a real “bionic man.” People are already working on interfacing human brains and machines. If a head transplant works, who is to say what the next step might be? And, who can ever forget Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode, “The Trade-Ins?”

  2. There is a line of thought (sic) that the gut plays a large part in determinig the body functions and indeed, reactions. My gut feeling (sic) is that the body will reject it’s new head on the grounds of ethics, independence and on principle! Character incompatibility may also play a roll. And culinary preferences?

  3. It could work i wont be surprised if it happens as alot once thought impossible is now childs play.however what is the use,live and let die.though there may be uses like to keep someon alive to get valuable info,or finish something he started,specially to wrong a right he caused before he or her lost his or her body.other than rare circumstances,live and let die.

  4. Dr. White was my neurosurgeon many years ago, when I was in Metro Hospital in Cleveland. He was head of the department and a professor at CWRU, very well respected. I believe his experimentation revealed the complexity of transplantation.

  5. The human brain is far too complex in its architecture and chemistry to facilitate transplantation. It is infinitely more complex than the human heart which can be replaced with an artificial pump. Can a neurosurgeon replace the brain with an artificial one? The answer is clearly no. In addition, the neurons will fail to fire during the cleavage of the head.
    Brain surgeons are typically assumed to be highly intelligent and educated; this one is an idiot.

  6. The next diet fad. Or a way for the crazies at capital punishment to make some cash on the side. Maybe some black market bodies on ice shipped straight from the source in decapitated terrorism land. With all great advances in medicine comes a nasty dark side. I say, go ahead and try….but not for profit. Use the technology for the better good, for only the people who need it. Don’t waste this on those who just don’t like their bodies. To solve that issue, simply take away their media, give them back their self esteem. Maybe teach them how to cook.

  7. This is not going to work! This is just a waste of some persons life! You need air, and lungs, a heart beating blood to your head. You can’t cut off someones head, put it on another and expect to live.What do others think?

  8. Hmm…I can’t even begin to imagine the possibilities…this could well mean that ppl could live forever…but wat happens if u attach the head of an old man to a teenager…would the oldmans face regain youth?… Or vice versa…wat if a womans head is put on a man’s…we could only wonder…

  9. Here’s the final step Jay: A quick release mechanism and a closet full of bodies of varying shapes and sizes. Going shopping with the wife suddenly becomes unimaginably exciting. “I’ll take the lumber jack and my wife would like the Jennifer Lopez.”

  10. How long do you think it will be before there donor body starts showing signs of Werdnig-Hoffman disease? Because it will.

  11. I don’t see why they can’t grow a body for the person from stem cells. Basically, print a 3D structure for bones, veins, nerve, specialized organs, etc (which we can already do) introduce organ cells related to specific organs, assemble the body and get it running. Today, everything below the neck can be regulated by machines. It’d be your cells minus the birth defects so no chance of rejection. It’s a stretch from current technology, but we can create a living human body from a person’s living stem cells, 3D printed organs and tissues. and scaffolding.

    However, before they should be performing surgeries swapping a head, they should see if they can print/attach an arm or leg to someone who needs it. Validate and optimize tissue generation and nerve repairing function first. I believe after we can 3D print, assemble, and maintain in a body in a machine maintained stasis, a head swapping surgery has a better chance of succeeding and not ending the patient’s life.

  12. Amazing… i was recently fantasizing about creating your own (vegetable)clones and somehow transferring your brain(consciousness) into it, when you get older, to obtain a long life/ theoretical immortality, so now in the next decade or so that would be possible through potential head(brain transplant), man the future is exciting. I wonder what humanity would be like in a 100 years or so…

  13. I wish them the best.

    Even if does not work in 2 years, it will work in 20 years. Or maybe 50 years.

    It will work one day.

  14. Hi, I have a question. My neighbor is in the beginning stages of ALS and is almost immobilized in the right arm. If this head transplant works, would it be possible to save him? Please, please, please tell me, and if yes, who do I contact for more information.

    Thank you,

    Vasyl

  15. We can look at this issue form the scientific point of view there are numerous social issue that emanate from this. What of the Identity issue? I don’t think transplanting a head to another body will not create an identity crisis? This will amount to a whole new territory for human race. I hope all these potential both ethnics, science and social issues are fully understood or at least explore but I think we have a long way to go. Complex!!!!!!

  16. I think that this is quite controversial. if the operation takes place, whether it is successful or not it will make head rolls( no pun intended)

  17. I am on hospice for heart and lung failure. My liver is not that great either. I would do this if if were available. I’m too young to die and still have a lot to contribute to this world. I would take the chance to be able to live, really live not on machines.

  18. The difference that I noticed between Dr. Whites and Dr. Canavero’s procedures is; Dr. White appears to have transferred both blood and the head to the recipients body, while Dr. Canavero drain’s the blood from the head first. Either way, I believe the biggest challenge will be preventing grafts verses host disease. I predict this will be more challenging than Dr. Canavero makes it out to be because scientists do not yet have an accurate method to distinguish stem cells from other cells recovered from the blood or bone marrow, which will cause the donor’s body stem cells to attack the head and brain. FYI, grafts verses host disease is one of the most painful and HORIBLE deaths to endure.

  19. You’d have to use one hell of a lot of drugs and immunosuppressants to stop the body rejecting the head, even if the surgery does go well. I don’t think it’s possible.

  20. I think this is an amazing feat in the progression of science and medicine. Yes this is scary but its also exciting! Think of all the amazing things that doctors can learn from this whether it is a success or not. But especially if it is. Such as mending broken spinal cords, reconnecting those severed nervs and allowing people to walk again who can not. Especially wonderful for this man who is willing to volunteer for this procedure. I hope Canavero goes through with this and I hope he is successful. Every time some one says something is not possible it becomes more and more so. I am a medical assistant I’m only 22. I was told my whole life that I could not be a doctor but now I want more and more every day to be apart of these scientific advancements. I truly want to help people and I believe that Canavero is on the brink of something fantastic. I truly wish I could be at the conference with him this week it would be an honor but I can’t wait to find out how this plays out!!!

  21. Finally the day has come when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people.

  22. This is not scary at all, this is hope. For the millions suffering from debilitating diseases and motor-neuron disorders, such is a thing is progressive and needs to be done. I wish more people would research the experiments of Dr. White in the 70’s as that is the one of the reasons body transplants have always fascinated me, and I’m sure with an open mind, many others as well.

    Remember those frozen heads for cryonic transplant, well…we can see where that is going, human longevity will be a great thing, we just need to grow up and stop labeling anything we don’t agree with as unethical, but if a person consents to having this done, and the donor consents pre-mortem, then by all means no legislation or emotive responses from the general, usually ignorant, populace should keep a person from living. I applaud the brave soul who will undergo the operation, and can only hope for the best. Maybe better stem cell therapies in the future will facilitate such operations better.

  23. So outta curiousity, if this works, meaning eventually the process becomes successful, without the need for drugs to stabilize the body, isn’t it possible that someone could live forever, given that he gets his body replaced when needed?

  24. So a dog brain transplant is the closest guess…
    So what stores who we are again? The most important part is our memory, right?…

  25. Wow. First of all, great article. Very interesting. I have been following this for a little bit, and I am not completely sure about this whole thing. Here are a few of my concerns: We are still researching and finding more and more things about the brain and other parts of the body, and I am not sure we should attempt this until we know completely about the brain and the spinal cord, which we may never. Second of all, when you look at other experiments involving monkeys and rats, the animals did not survive very long. The human brain is way more complex than either monkey’s or rats, so why will human’s live for longer than monkey’s and rats? My third concern is the ethical part of this. Why save ONE person using the entire body, when the organs inside it could save many. I don’t think that except under rare circumstances, even if this experiment works. Also, this surgery costs 13 million dollars. Most people don’t have that kind of money. This is my take on this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *