Human Head Transplants Could Become Reality

Jul 2, 2013 2:06pm
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Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, 1931. (Credit: Universal/Getty Images)

An Italian scientist says human head transplants could become a reality in this century, but don’t lose your heads over it.

At least  not yet.

The most famous actual head transplant was performed on monkeys in 1970. The surviving monkey lived  for only eight days.

Still, Dr. Sergio Canavero, who works at Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, says science has caught up with science fiction like Frankenstein, and head transplants are possible.

“The problem here is not really technical but is completely ethical,” he told ABCNews.com.

Read about the latest face transplant patient.

In the journal Surgical Neurology International, Canavero outlined a procedure for taking the head of one person and transplanting it onto the body of another. It involves inducing hypothermia and cutting the spinal cord with an “ultra-sharp blade” so it can be fused with the donor’s spinal cord.

“This is, of course, totally different from what happens in clinical spinal cord injury, where gross damage and scarring hinder regeneration,” Canavero wrote.

He outlined a hypothetical scenario in which the body donor is a brain dead patient. He said the recipient could be anyone dying of cancer or anything else  that leaves the brain intact.

For the head transplant to work, two surgeries would have to take place in the same operating room in which both spinal cords would be severed simultaneously but only after all other cuts had been made. Then, the donor body’s spinal cord would be “chemofused” to the recipient head’s spinal cord using a substance called polyethylene glycol, or PEG.

View photos of face transplant patients through the years.

Canavero called his surgery the Heaven surgery, for “head anastomosis venture.”

But he points out that the surgery would create a “chimera,” a mythological creature, and come with complex ethical issues — such as the patient’s eventual offspring carrying only the genetic traits of his or her body donor.

“However, it is equally clear that horrible conditions without a hint of hope of improvement cannot be relegated to the dark corner of medicine,” Canavero concludes in the paper.

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