Meet the Man Set to Have the World's First Full Head Transplant Surgery

The first human head transplant could take place in 2017.

Italian neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Canavero says he's already identified the first patient in one of the riskiest, wildest medical endeavors to date: Putting the head of a 30-year-old man onto a donor body.

Valery Spiridonov, a Russian computer scientist suffering from a rare form of spinal muscular atrophy called Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, will be the first to receive the transplant. But it isn't as simple as Canavero just whisking Spiridonov to his own lab. It means a trip to the U.S.

Canavero needs to partner with a major academic medical center, something he hopes to accomplish by presenting his case this June to the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons. It's a major undertaking, one Canavero told CNN would probably take 36 hours to perform and two years to prepare.

According to CNN, Canavero's been receiving a lot of requests for the surgery from transsexual patients interested in a pretty radical approach to gender reassignment. But the doctor says he's more focused on treating people suffering from fatal diseases.

The history: Transplanting a head isn't a completely new endeavor, though the first attempt probably fits snugly in the category of "mad science." A doctor named Robert White attempted a monkey head swap in 1970. The monkey died shortly thereafter since White didn't have the technology to actually reconnect the monkey's spine, according to a report Canavero wrote in 2013.

Monkey head transplant sketch
Source: 
Robert White/Surgical Neurology International

In the same report, Canavero says he now has the technology to reconnect the head and spine, hopefully beating White's eight-day life record by (for Spiridonov's sake) considerably longer. In 2014, he presented a TEDx Talk on how feasible head transplantation already is.

Source: YouTube

The controversy: There's some pushback from the medical community. Mainly, a cut-open monkey from almost half a century ago is not much of a starting point for putting someone's head on a new body.

"[It's] a 45-year-old reference in a primate and there is no evidence that the spinal cord was anastomosed functionally," Dr. Hunt Batjer, chairman of neurological surgery at University of Texas Southwestern and president-elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, told CNN. "I would not wish this on anyone, I would not allow anyone to do it to me, there are a lot of things worse than death."

People live successful lives without being able to move anything below the neck. So even if Canavero can't reconnect the spine, that doesn't mean Spiridonov would die.

But something else could, and Canavero doesn't address it in his report.

"The vagus nerves at the base of the brainstem power the parasympathetic nervous system that maintains blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, all the things that keep us alive," Dr. Christopher Winfree, assistant professor of neurological surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, told Mic. "If you cut the vagus nerves, the body can't last long, and that's the problem. They take a year to regrow, and we can't keep a person alive for that long. That's why this is going to fail."

Dr. Sergio Canavero
Source: 
YouTube

The last resort: Spiridonov doesn't seem to think so. With his body already deteriorated, options are running slim. According to Express, he's already made up his mind. "Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am. But you have to understand that I don't really have many choices," he told the publication. "If I don't try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse."

Thankfully, there's time for Canavero to run tests to make sure everything is feasible, time to find a donor body, which is its own can of worms, time to actually look at Spiridonov's medical charts and, hopefully, time to check with Winfree and reassess the situation.

"We don't know what's going to happen in the future," Winfree told Mic. "We can't even predict the next 10 years. But with this current time in technology, here's where we stand."

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Max Plenke

Max Plenke is a staff writer at Mic, where he covers breaking news, climate science, health and the future. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ and Wallpaper. Send story tips to max@mic.com.

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