It’s Heady Stuff

She Man, Paul McCarthy, 2004

She Man, Paul McCarthy, 2004

A medical project whose goal will be to successfully transplant a human head will be launched later this year. Sergio Canavero of Turin, Italy, announced plans to form a surgical team to perform this transplant operation by 2017. Back in 2013, he gave the world its first heads up about his intentions. The placing of a head from one individual onto the body of another are called head transplants and not body transplants, primarily because of legacy naming conventions initiated in the 20th-century, when these types of transplant operations were first attempted on animals. All of those transplants failed due to immune rejection of the transplanted head by the host body. Transplant technology has significantly evolved since then, so immunological concerns are no longer deemed to be paramount. None of the 20th-century attempts ever tried to connect the transplanted head’s spinal cord to that of the host body’s, leaving those animals paralyzed from the neck down.

Canavero plans on connecting the severed spinal cords and expects the patient to gain full use of their new body. One highly experimental technique that he plans on using is to fuse the two spinal cords together using baths of polyethylene glycol, which has shown promise in aiding the fats in cell membranes to mesh together. After the two spinal cord ends have healed together, a yearlong process of physical therapy will retrain the neural pathways and teach the patient how to use their new body.

This is all very hard for me to get my head around. It seems like an idea more out of science fiction than medical science. In fact the original Star Trek TV series envisioned just such an operation in the episode, Spock’s Brain. In this episode Spock’s brain is stolen by pesky aliens and Doctor McCoy is tasked to reinstall it into Spock’s brainless body. It was one of the more mindless episodes of that TV series.

This type of transplant operation is envisioned to be performed for patients with bodies that are riddled with cancer or are suffering from a degenerative nerve and muscle disease. Typically, early adopters of such novel and radical medical procedures do not fare all that well, but volunteers are already lining up for the chance at a new body. As with any new medical procedure, ethical concerns are important to consider. This one is more fraught with danger than most. The opportunity for late-night talk show ridicule is a forgone certainty.