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Surgeon Reveals Head Transplant Plan, But Patient Steals the Show

ANNAPOLIS, Md.—Valery Spiridonov looks impossibly small. He is dressed in all white, from his white button-down shirt to the white socks on his feet, which dangle at the ends of white pants and a white blanket. Breaking up the look is a black strap, which holds him to a motorized wheelchair.

He uses his left hand, which he can still move, a little bit, to steer the wheelchair into a hotel meeting room. There, he confirms that he would like to be the first person ever to have his head transplanted onto a new body.

Spiridonov flew from Russia to be at this conference, the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS). He joined the surgeon proposing to do the transplant, Sergio Canavero of Turin, Italy. Canavero had built up his talk, a keynote address, for months, promising a big reveal of his plans to transplant Spiridonov’s head onto a donor body. (For background, see my earlier blog post and a good overview at New Scientist.)

The meeting is small, maybe 100 or fewer surgeons, and held in a very normal-looking Westin hotel in Annapolis, Md. Conference organizer Maggie Kearney spent much of the day turning away reporters in anticipation of a packed room. She says that in 15 years, she can’t remember a reporter ever attending the surgical conference before.

By the end of Canavero’s three-hour-long presentation (it was supposed to be an hour and a half, Maggie tells me), most of the reporters in the room seem worn out, and a bit confused about what the fuss was all about.

Sergio Canaveros
Sergio Canaveros, right.
Erika Engelhaupt

Canavero reviewed, at length, the scientific literature on spinal cord injury and recovery, regrowth of various parts of the central nervous system, and why some of the basic assumptions of neurosurgery are wrong. Throughout the lecture, he would occasionally point to Valery Spiridonov, his wheelchair parked near the stage, and make a declaration (“Propriospinal tract neurons are the key that will make him walk again!”).

Answering detractors’ comments that the transplant could be “worse than death” or could drive Spiridonov insane, Canavero asked Spiridonov directly, “Don’t you agree that your [current] condition could drive you to madness?”

Spiridonov answered quietly in the affirmative.

His condition is grave: a degenerative motor neuron disease that is slowly killing him. “I am sure that one day gene therapy and stem cells will fulfill their future,” Canavero said, “but for this man it will come too late.”

Finally, near the end of the talk, Canavero roughly outlined the surgery. He plans to sever the spinal cord very cleanly, using a special scalpel honed nano-sharp. (I could not see Spiridonov’s reaction to the special scalpel, but wondered.)

To minimize any die-off of cells at the severed ends during the transfer, Canavero says he will cut Spiridonov’s spinal cord a bit lower on the spine than needed, and the body’s a bit higher, and then at the last minute slice them again for a fresh cut. Then, add some polyethylene glycol (shown to stimulate nerve regrowth in animals), join the two ends together with a special connector, and voila. Electrical stimulation would then be applied to further encourage regrowth.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it, like reconnecting all the blood vessels and so forth, but Canavero is a neurosurgeon and the spinal cord was his focus.

Other neurosurgeons at the meeting responded cautiously to the proposal. The surgery might be possible “someday, but it is really a delicate situation,” said Kazem Fathie, a former chair of the board of AANOS.

Craig Clark, a general neurosurgeon in Greenwood, Mississippi, calls Canavero’s idea “very provocative.”

“There have been many papers over the years that have shown regeneration, but for one reason or another they didn’t pan out when applied clinically,” he said.

“There’s a lot of ethical questions about it,” said neurosurgeon Quirico Torres of Abilene, Texas. But Torres thinks it could be ethical to allow volunteers to do the surgery, and one day we might consider it normal. “Remember, years ago people were questioning Bill Gates: why do you need a computer? And now we can’t live without it.”

What’s Next?

Apart from the rundown of previous work on spinal cord injury, much of what Canavero said about the surgery was pretty much what he has said before. He supported his arguments for individual elements of a head transplant (or body transplant, if you prefer) but did not reveal any new demonstration of the entire procedure working in a person or an animal.

But Canavero has no shortage of confidence. He says he wants to do the surgery in America (implying Italy doesn’t have its act together enough to host a cutting-edge project like this).

“I have a detailed plan to do it,” he said, adding that he is asking Bill Gates and other billionaires to donate. He invited surgeons at the meeting to join his team, which could be enormous—more than 100 surgeons, he has said—and he wants team leaders in orthopedics, vascular surgery, and so on. These surgeons should work on the project full time for the next two years, he said, “and you will be paid through the nose, because I think doctors involved in this should be paid more than football players.”

chair
Valery Spiridonov entering the conference room. Photo: Erika Engelhaupt

After the talk, Spiridonov disappeared into a room to rest. When he came back out, he answered questions for the TV crews that had descended, sounding a bit weary of answering the same questions he’s been asked before. “What will happen to you if you don’t get this surgery?” a reporter called out. “My life will be pretty dark,” he said. “My muscles are growing weaker. It’s pretty scary.”

He looked tired.

During his interviews, I stepped aside to talk with his hosts in Annapolis, who are friends of a friend of the Spiridonov family. “He’s brilliant, he’s happy, he’s funny,” said Briana Alessi. “If this surgery were to go through and if it works, it’s going to give him a life. It’s life-changing. He’ll be able to do the things he could only dream of.”

And if not? “He’s taking a chance either way,” she said.

The final question he takes from the press: What do you say to people who say this surgery should not be done?

Spiridonov’s reply: “Maybe they should imagine themselves in my place.”

46 thoughts on “Surgeon Reveals Head Transplant Plan, But Patient Steals the Show

  1. Dear Billionaire Donor

    I have this great experimental project I want to do. I have been obsessed by this since I was a child. I am planning on overpaying everyone involved and have no concept of budgeting. Of course, if, after we have perfected the procedure, your grandchild with the closest tissue-type happens to accidentally die of a frontal lobe injury in the driveway of the hospital you are staying in…

    1. The donor body would have to be found closer to the time of the surgery, if it happens, and would be the body of a brain-dead person. The legal issues around procuring the body of an organ donor or a person who had donated their body to science to use in such a procedure would be interesting to know more about — this would be uncharted territory to say the least.

  2. Pat, how callous and ignorant of you. You have no concept of what effects a ‘crippling’ of this magnitude can have on a person. Are you really so self-centered in your thinking and dense as to assume the surgeons would attempt something like this for the money!?! Go back into your hole.

  3. I have to confess to an initial shock at the idea, but I suspect that is because my generation grew up with books like Frankenstein. But after thinking about it more I found myself wondering the following: I wonder if any of the donor bodies thoughts or memories would transfer to the new brain. After all, so much information that drives our bodies and brains travels through those ‘roadways’.

  4. Perhaps doctors should be paid “through the nose” for this type of surgery – if it works. But I personally believe it’s highly unethical to make such a promise when such a radical surgery has never been tried, and with odds such overwhelming odds of failure. Also, what happens if the billionaires don’t come through with enough money to pay the entire team of doctors “through the nose?” Does that mean the surgery doesn’t happen? What about the patient then? Not to mention all the incredible hurdles they have to go through to make sure they have a compatible donor.

  5. I’m with Pat. This doctor’s enormous ego is clouding the reality that we are all transients, just passing through this world…and comparing a full body transplant to the advent of computers? What a joke. This is all a graceless and narcissistic pipe dream. Time and energy would be better spent coming to terms with the inherent guarantee that we are all terminal. This all reflects a sad and desperate testimony of lost souls.

  6. I understand how this guy feels, but I feel a body transplant might be taking it too far. I mean only because they have no successful attempts on any host (animals) this far.

  7. I have spinal nerve root damage lumbar 3,4 and sciatic 1 and 2.amongst other injuries.Interested I followed Chris Reeves through His attempts to walk.When I asked why the damaged parts in my spine couldn’t be cut and re-joined the Surgeon compared it to a telephone cable hundreds of wires to line up exactly but not one color coded .I wish Him well but don’t really think it possible.Maybe the special joiner will do that and it’s helping to explore this field for so many paralysed patients.He is a brave Man to undergo this.

  8. Donor parts aside… is this a hoax? Hours of work and what of the tisue/organ rejection factor. I feel dumb giving this any more thought if this isn’t real.

  9. I know science is to be appreciated. Somehow we think by transplanting a head on to a donor body is ethical and reasonable for those who could use it for there future. I do not wish to deny future to anyone, but we come to a point in which we play as Gods who can do anything. Even so, if we could create anything, at what costs would we do so? How many people aren’t this privileged? It is also egocentric for anyone else opposed the opposer. Where does narcism and profit thourhts meet ethical boarders? Changing handicapped people into possible healthy living bodies says something about ourselves. We still cannot accept inperfection! We should find ways to first step down from our horses and then to try and respect diversification of life. We should be proud to be able to share and care and get moere health in life, but we should not evade healthy criticism. Be open and discover!

  10. So what if the doctor makes money one it. Don’t most of us spend our whole lives making a buck? I’m guessing mr Pat doesn’t do anything to lessen the torturous pain of crippling disease for a living. So bugger off. This would be great if it works. I wish Spiridonov and his doctor all the best.

  11. I think this is a great start to something that might be one of the best things that has happened in humanity. Its no different then “assisted death” that is now legal. I am a donor and if I am dead, then someone else might as well have the chance to live. I hope things turn out well for him and everyone involved.

  12. Erika – I am a SCI survivor interested in learning more about the state of research around spinal cord regeneration. Is there a recording or transcript of his remarks? Thanks in advance

    1. Josh, I will email you separately. I have my own notes (which may be hard to read but include references to some research papers). I don’t believe there was a transcript made at the time.

  13. As long this is purely done to open new doors for people with debilitating conditions and not to give self-important people longer lives, This Perfect Day style, I wholeheartedly support any doctor who gives him-/herself to the project, and any single pro athlete who earns more than any single doctor working on the project should be considered as a body donor.

  14. Dear Pat: Why don’t you go crawl back into yours? Suppose these weirdos can’t find a good brain dead body donor on hand? Wouldn’t a nice live healthy “donor” do an even better job?

  15. Dear Pat: Why don’t you go crawl back into yours? Suppose these weirdos can’t find any brain dead donors on hand, wouldn’t a nice live healthy one be even better for this wierdo transplant?

  16. I am in awe of this… This is not a joke I hope?

    I wish I could read more about this!! Is there a website or a site that explains more about this process and all that?

    Thanks for sharing…I hope to find out a bit more about this?

    Good luck to this gentleman. I have seen what your condition can do and it is scary! I will pray for you!!

  17. Detractors, why? Because embracing the impossible is scary, and not embracing it is easy. Fact is we’ve seen transplant surgeries of all varieties in the past decade that were science fiction till they happened. Is this creepy to us? Sure, we have a working body. Now imagine you can’t do ANY THING AT ALL on your own. With the exception of slight movements in one hand, your entire body is a useless hulk. Prone ot bedsores and infections that can kill you, the alternative of doing nothing is simply a slow agonizing death encased in a body that will eventually be completely immobile. Through that lens, is the possibility of dying now for the chance that you can return to an almost normal life worth it?

    And Pat, if you were reading more articles of this nature, you’d have surely noticed that growing replacement parts from your own tissue donations is a real likely thing now. They’ve grown entire limbs in the lab, all from a few donor cells. Replacement organs from your own stem cells is already happening.

    The upside here is that besides a swift moving disease, or something like dementia or a Prion disease, this will be the next step in human longevity.

    Sign me the the **** up!

    [note from editor: comment edited at “****”; please all, watch the swear words, even partial words.]

  18. It would be amazing if this worked but every case is different! I myself had my left leg amputated! The nerves never coutourized I deal with a lot of unconfortable pain and because of that cannot put a prosthetic on!! I hope they don’t do this to him before they know for sure it will work!!

  19. It is for us who have been given the freedom to advance in all human capacities, to finish the work that those before us have dared to contemplate, plan and implement. We, as a people, deserve the choices we make and thus following circumstances unyielding.
    A brave soul who would literally lay his life down to become a higher functioning individual in this world has my respect 100%. I am a nurse and have seen so many people with far lesser ailments, diseases and prognoses give up because they do not possess the fight for life. I say to you: “God be within the hands, the minds, the hearts and the body that I pray you are blessed with!”
    I cannot wait to see this story unfold as a success!

  20. Today I visited my cousin who has been suffering from multiple sclerosis for many years. He has very limited mobility left, only able to control a motorized wheelchair. Mostly he is confined to a hospital bed with special mattress to prevent bed sores. He still has a healthy mind and never complains. How he manages to sustain a positive outlook on life amazes me. In this procedure there are many minefields practically and ethically, but I can not help to wonder what this could mean to him. He has been in a slowly deteriorating condition for many years with no other hope of ever regaining mobility. I believe it is very likely that a suitable body from a willing donor could have been found in the past years. We all pass away at some point and if that happens, donating your remains to help another person is a generous thing to do.

  21. fascinating ! Hoping this opens door for more catastrophicly injured people’s for a new chance of fulfilling life ! Best of success !

  22. I give him a year to live if successful, I don’t think he’s solved the problem of the brain not recognizing the organs in the body which it will send signals to them and when the brain receives back something which wasn’t there before it will send enzymes to kill that organ.

  23. I will watch this surgery with great interest. Even if it fails, doctors and scientists will surely learn a great deal. I hope it is successful, though!

  24. So I can see many of you are skeptical about this… Remember the moon race in the 20th century? Well, personally I don’t because I’m 17 but what I’ve read is that there was a lot of skepticism at the beginning and the first trials were a disaster. But then again they didn’t give up and finally sent a man on the moon. What I’m trying to say is that you can’t fail if you don’t try and failure has certainly proven itself throughout history of being the cornerstone of our success.

  25. @Cindy Campbell: Are you aware of Dr. V.S. Ramachandran’s research? He developed an inexpensive and fast therapy for “ghost limb pain” in amputated patients. You can watch his 2007 TED talk at

    http://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind

    and read the scientific article “Mirror Therapy for Phantom Limb Pain” on the New England Journal of Medicine:

    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc071927

    Hopefully it can help you — or anyone else who may need it — to get rid of your pain.

  26. “Implying Italy doesnt have it’s act together? ” This is what is called bad journalism.

    Perhaps it has something to do with italy being the most catholic country of europe, but most probably he wants to do it in the US for legal reasons, as the US and most continental european countries have completely different systems when it comes to lawsuits.

    1. There may well be legal reasons as well that Canavero is not addressing, but he didn’t talk about that during the lecture. He said that the surgery can’t be done in Italy and made comments about the Italian military that implied that the government and/or technology there would not be up to the task. Then he spoke at some length about American leadership and innovation. I agree it was an odd thing to say, but that’s what he said.

  27. surgeons playing God: When a body stops working the soul leaves the body. Only through God’s will , will this crazy concept ever work.

  28. Why not, instead of spending millions on a surgery like this which is very likely to fail, spend that money where it will make a more substantial and guaranteed positive result for more people, like donating to help educate and feed underprivileged children?

  29. To all of you who are opposed to this surgery, how is it different from any other life saving transplant surgery? When the first-ever heart transplant was done, a lot of people reacted negatively. Now, it is common enough that it rarely makes the news. In most transplant surgeries, someone has to die so that someone else can live. This is no different so I don’t see any reason for ethical concerns.

  30. Can we see results on a chicken head transplant and then a cat and then a chimpanzee. Thought someone was attempting this somewhere.
    All the best, Dean.

  31. I am laughing at all the ignorant and negative comments on here. To all of you naysayers, do your research before you show your stupidity on here. This has successfully been done with dogs, mice, and monkeys. If you care to debate me on this please do. We attach limbs from cadavers to injured humans often in the United States. They are able to connect spinal cords in other clinical trials. If you yourself are not physically disabled you have no idea what it is like. Whether or not this is successful we will learn a lot. I am all for this. Best of luck to everyone involved.

  32. I’m all for this, albeit the thought of a cadaver being transplanted onto a body is a bit jarring. I’d rather they clone a blank (brainless) body of the person going through this procedure vs facing rejection (though the cloning thing might open another can of worms, but face it stem cell research will ultimately lead there whether you like it or not). To the people who think this is science fiction, you might need to read up on the famous Russian dog experiment, and the one in the 1970’s conducted by Dr. Robert White and the monkey head transplant. He was able to attach the head of one monkey onto the body of another, and guess what, it lived for several days and responded to stimuli, even attempting to bite the surgeons. This was in the 70’s, we’ve come a long way, and in the end science will prevail, and yes, I do believe in God if my words seem to indicate otherwise. By the way, no one is playing God(we are all relative, and why the Bojangles would God even care?), we are just being Human with our “God-Given” brain when we do science.

  33. It’s very unlikely that the surgery will be a complete success. The animal model experiments suggest that Valery will have consciousness on the donor’s body not long after surgery, but there are three huge issues:
    1) The probability of tissue rejection is high. When a body starts to reject a limb transplant, doctors remove the limb. Even though we’ve come a long way in terms of monitoring rejection faster, the chances are not in Valery’s favor here. He will likely die from this.

    2) The proposed spinal cord repair is preposterous without solid animal-model evidence that the repair can work. Here I am incredibly incredulous. Canavero comes off like a con, if not a complete sociopath. What country’s medical standards would permit a procedure that has never been successful in animals? Show me the evidence and leave the rhetoric.

    3) Supposing this all comes together, Valery escapes the tissue rejection fates and the spine is actually able to heal, there’s still no body of evidence for what the lived experience will be like. The woman whose face was eaten by a chimp had face transplant, but doesn’t have full facial function. We simply don’t know if the body will feel like Frankenstein.

    The steps needed here seem simple enough. Get an ethics board to approve the animal research and document proof of the spinal repair and and range of mobility after.

  34. This reminds me of that Johnny Depp movie where he’s a techie who gets some kind of radiation poisoning or something and uploads his brain | memories to a computer, then “lives” on screens, interacting normally, talking with people, solving crimes, etc.

    Beyond reflexive rejection of the unknown, this raises interesting questions around our definitions of “living” and “consciousness” – and what the body has to do with either.

    It is an inquiry worth pursuing, since we seem to be at the dawn of a new age of humanity, where science and technology are so intimately woven into our daily experience that it is nearly impossible to know exactly where “we” end and “it” begins.

    Personally, I believe this new way of being human holds infinite potential for good, with a pretty decent likelihood that it will at least be attempted to be used against us at some point, because…well, human frailty and ego.

    Still, imagine the paradigm shift that immortality would create for humans. I’m sure these doctors do, every day. We know this because so many of them think they’re god.

    I suppose it’s up to us – and our collective conscience on election days – to determine how this kind of power is used in the future. Meanwhile, sending good thoughts for this man’s dream becoming his reality – and that the reality lives up to his dream.

  35. I have a few things to say about head transplantation as an interested reader.

    First, yes I support allowing Valery Spiridonov to have the transplant. It’s consentual and he feels he will be medically better off.

    Second, I feel the heart is an important aspect of self, perhaps even more so than the brain, and a complete transplant of self should involve both organs, and yes I am claiming the heart has intelligence, not a claim I make alone.

    There is a book on the subject, called “The hearts’ Code”. Which talks about the experiences of heart transplant recipients, and phenomena related to heart to heart communication.

    Channel Darryl Anka’s persona “Bashar” is a good primer for these concepts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOqT-xd6CQg

  36. I am somewhat appalled at the disproportion of effort and cost between pioneering work (with no guarantee of success but huge kudos) and well-understood work (with high success rates and that costs little per patient) but which is nevertheless life-changing for those treated. I am thinking of treatment of cleft lip and cleft palate (thus enabling normal speech and eating, and social acceptance); of entropion and trichiasis (inturned eyelashes irritating the cornea, which untreated can lead to infection and blindness); of mosquito nets and anti-malarial medicine; of oral rehydration therapy (ORT) – to save the lives of those with cholera, for example. These are desperate needs for many especially in the thrid world. Thousands, or millions, of such patients could have their lives saved or transformed for the cost of the first head transplant. My sympathy to Valery Spiridonov, however. But I believe the principle of triage should apply – first deal with those you know you can help.

  37. think if it would be successful, then many aged people can get young body by only head transplant to live more better life :p wait, i am 33 still, hope this would be possible when i would be too old to get new body 🙂

  38. For those who believe in such nonsense, I ask – Will he afterward have two souls in his body? Where does the soul infest itself in one’s body? Will both body’s souls be severed into two separate half-souls?

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