The ultimate body modification may be on the horizon: head transplants.

Imagine a future where your own body was disposable, where people transplant their heads onto entirely new bodies when their own begin to fail. Is it possible?

Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero says he’s ready to perform such a procedure and that he can do it as soon as 2017. The operation would take 36 hours, along with the participation of 100 surgeons.

If all goes according to plan, according to Dr. Canavero, when the patient wakes up, he or she would be looking at an entirely new body beneath them.

If you think this sounds a little too much like science fiction, think again. The procedure has actually already been done before, just not ever with a human.

In 1970, Dr. Robert White successfully transplanted a monkey’s head onto the body of another monkey. However, the monkey died five days later, as White did not attach the spinal cords, resulting in the immune system rejecting the head.

Dr. Canavero believes the solution may be a clean cut of the spinal cords before fusing the two.

“The key to spinal cord fusion is a sharp severance of the cords themselves,” Dr. Canavero said in a paper published earlier this year, “with its attendant minimal damage to both the axons in the white matter and the neurons in the gray laminae. This is a key point.”

Dr. Canavero already has a leading candidate to undergo the first operation: 30-year-old Russian programmer Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from muscular atrophy. He is confined to his wheelchair and is offering himself up as a last resort to gain a healthy body while he is alive.

While Spiridonov admits that he is worried about the procedure, he is willing to take the risk.

“Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am,” Spiridonov said, “but it is not just very scary, but also very interesting. You have to understand that I don’t really have many choices. If I don’t try this chance, my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.”

The controversial procedure is extremely risky, and Dr. Canavero assumes no responsibility for the result of the experiment, which will require the surgeon to “weld” severed axons — long extensions of neurons used to communicate with each other as well as send signals to muscles and glands — from the donor with those from the patient.

The two biggest obstacles, the surgeon says, are going to be reconnecting the spinal cord and preventing the immune system from rejecting the head.

The patient is also at risk for literal insanity caused by a new set of chemicals rushing into the brain from a different body. However, if all goes according to plan, the patient will spend a month in a medically induced coma in order for the tissues to fuse, and then it will take about a year of physical therapy and rehabilitation to recover.

But not everyone in the scientific community trusts that Dr. Canavero can successfully pull off the procedure.

Dr. Chad Gordon, professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery and neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins University, says that such an operation is more likely to happen in 2117, not 2017.

“If he’s saying two [years], and he’s promising a living, breathing, talking, moving human being, he’s lying,” Gordon said.

The head transplant could also cost around $13 million.

Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of California-Davis, said that the chances of the procedure getting the green light or even working are unlikely.

“I don’t believe it will ever work,” he said. “There are too many problems with the procedure. Trying to keep someone healthy in a coma for 4 weeks, it’s not going to happen.”

Could this be the beginning of a whole new area of surgery? If Dr. Canavero actually goes through with and successfully performs the head transplant, imagine the possibilities the future holds: a world in which paraplegics, quadriplegics, and tetraplegics could walk again and live normal lives.

Reference

  1. Ellison J. Update: First human selected for head transplant! Seattle Pi website. April 14, 2015. http://blog.seattlepi.com/bigscience/2015/04/14/update-first-human-selected-for-head-transplant/#31272101=0.
  2. Poladian C. Head transplants still not a thing despite ‘breakthroughs,’ a 2017 date and a volunteer. International Business Times website. April 14, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/pulse/head-transplants-still-not-thing-despite-breakthroughs-2017-date-volunteer-1880164.
  3. Raskin A. Programmer Spiridonov’s head transplant: 10 amazing facts. Russian Beyond the Headlines website. April 15, 2015. http://rbth.com/science_and_tech/2015/04/15/programmer_spiridonovs_head_transplant_10_amazing_facts_45261.html.
  4. Whiteman H. 30-year-old Russian man volunteers for world’s first human head transplant. Medical News Today website. April 13, 2015. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/292306.php.