What if it were possible to transplant your head? Or, more appropriately, what if you could get a new body … you know, if something unfortunate happened to the one you were born with?
One scientist from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group claims to be able to do just that. Dr. Sergio Canavero published a paper earlier this year in Surgical Neurology International arguing for the possibility for a full human head transplant in the coming years. He builds off earlier breakthroughs, including the success of full face transplants on trauma victims, the restoration of urinary control to rats whose spinal cords had been fully severed and re-attached, and a Dr. Moreau-style head transplant performed on a rhesus monkey in the 1970s by a surgeon named Robert White.
Dr. Canavero's surgical proposal is modeled off the experiments carried out in the 70s, which were limited at the time because of the inability to re-connect the spinal cord of the new head with the body. The monkey's head could be re-attached successfully, but the animal would remain paralyzed from the point of contact down.
A sketch from early experiments on rhesus monkeys.
"The greatest hurdle to a [head transplant]," Dr. Canavero says, "is of course the reconnection of the donor's (D)'s and recipient's (R)'s spinal cords. It is my contention that the technology now exists for such linkage."
He says that the key to success is a super clean break — using an ultra-sharp surgical knife to sever both spinal cords at the same time, in the same surgical theater, which can then be re-connected successfully if done within an hour's time. This could mean life-altering surgical options for certain patients facing paralysis or certain genetic conditions like muscular dystrophy, though it would likely rule out those who endured less-precise spinal cord trauma.
"It is this 'clean cut' [which is] key to spinal cord fusion," Dr. Canavero explains, "in that it allows proximally severed axons to be 'fused' with their distal counterparts. This fusion exploits so-called fusogens/sealants … [which] are able to immediately reconstitute (fuse/repair) cell membranes damaged by mechanical injury, independent of any known endogenous sealing mechanism."
One potential concern, in addition to an absolutely terrifying scar, is the estimated $13 million price tag for the new procedure. It's also worth wondering whether recipients will have the opportunity to choose their new transplant-body. It isn't difficult to imagine a future world of luxury insurance plans where the wealthy and well-to-do could fork over higher premiums for athlete bodies, or perhaps celebrity ones. Maybe we'll all be able to lease bodies temporarily to avoid getting bored, or perhaps test-drive them like cars. Or maybe we'll be able to pick and choose, pulling runner legs and swimmer bums and maybe porn-star chests to make a sort of beautiful Frankenstein-like construction to walk around on after our first bodies go.
Unfortunately it's all science fiction for now, so we'll all have to wait a little longer for what will undoubtedly become a handy surgical alternative for diet and exercise. But Dr. Canavero is optimistic … he just needs to get a couple similarly optimistic subjects willing to try it first.