It's simultaneously hopeful and horrifying. An Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero is promoting the idea of head transplants: one healthy head transplanted onto one brain-dead but healthy body.
Anyone who has witnessed the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, quadriplegia or ALS can understand the impetus behind the procedure Canavero is offering.
In an independently organized TEDx event, Canavero lays out his “HEAVEN” procedure, short for “head anastomosis venture.”
Relating the complexity of the human nervous system to a piece of fruit, Canavero raises a banana and crushes it to pulp in his hand.
“Spinal cord injury releases 26,000 newtons of force. This is spinal cord injury. It’s unrecoverable,” said Canavero.(1)
Canavero then slices a banana with a sharp blade.
“The very sharp blade that will be used releases less than 10 newtons of force.” So, he reasons, less damage, easier to repair, and voila! A new body at the command of your old head.(1)
There you go. Except rewiring the spinal cord, with its millions of nerve fibers?
We do not have the technology, according to medical ethicist Arthur Caplan. “If we did,” Caplan argues, “there would be far fewer paralyzed people who have spinal cord injuries.” (5)
"Nor, despite Canavero’s assertions to the contrary, is medicine anywhere close to knowing how to use stem cells or growth factors to make this happen," he added.
Upon hearing of Canavero’s plans, medical bioethicists wrote a letter to the editor of Surgical Neurology International, bringing up ethical problems related to head transplants. First off, they say, even for neurologists, the technical feasibility of the procedure is unclear.(2)
In successful face and hand transplants, patients have incredible difficulty incorporating their new physical identity.
“This confusion to the person's psychological state could possibly lead to serious psychological problems,” the authors shared, “namely insanity and finally death." (2)
1) Head Transplantation: The Future Is Now. Tedxtalks.ted. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
2) Ethical considerations regarding head transplantation. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
3) The world’s first head transplant surgery might be part of one giant marketing stunt. business insider.com. Retrieved May 4, 2016
4) 'I'll do the first human head transplant’. TheGuardian.com. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
5) Doctor Seeking To Perform Head Transplant Is Out Of His Mind. forbes.com. Retrieved May 5, 2016.