An Italian neuroscientist says that with the right funding, he will be able to transplant a human head onto another body in the next two years.
An Italian neuroscientist says that within the next two years he will be able to transplant a human head onto another body, but some doctors are questioning the ethics of such a transplant, and whether it would even be in the best interests of a patient.
Dr. Sergio Canavero, a neurosurgeon with the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, has said in a recent medical paper that with about $30 million, he would be able to successfully join a healthy body to a young patient's head using what he has dubbed a “Head Anastomosis Venture” — or HEAVEN technique, according to the U.K.'s Independent.
The ideal patient for this procedure would be young, suffering from muscular dystrophy, perhaps a tetraplegic with organ failure, or someone who has been in an accident that rendered the body unusable, according to U.S. News & World Report..
The technique requires both the donor and the recipient's heads and spinal cords to be cooled to around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The recipient's body is put into temporary cardiac arrest. Once cold, both heads would be removed from their bodies via the GEMINI method, which uses extremely sharp blades that create a "clean cut," according to Canavero. In his paper, Canavero says the clean cut "allows proximally severed axons to be 'fused' with their distal counterparts." Neurosurgeons then have just an hour to reconnect the donated body to the recipient's head.
Dr. Robert White experimented with attaching new bodies to rhesus monkey heads in the 1970s. One monkey lived for a few days before dying, because there was no feasible way to connect old and new spinal cords.
Canavero says he believes he has solved this issue with the proposed use of polyethylene glycol, or PEG, to fuse the spinal cords immediately upon transfer. This concept still needs to be proven in the lab, however.
Along with testing spinal cord fusion, Canavero admits he has not begun to broach the ethical implications of this surgery.
Dr. Susan Bookheimer, clinical neuropsychologist and professor in residence at UCLA, however, expressed deep reservations about the procedure in an interview with MSN News.
"I think this is extremely far from being even the correct target for research," she said. "We still don't have technology that works for spinal cord transplants, let alone this. Get the spinal cord transplant to work, then we can talk. As the science is now, you would be taking a poorly functioning body and killing the person, or making them a quad[raplegic]. I don't see that as ethical or desirable at this point in the science."
Dr. Mary-Frances O'Connor, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, who has done clinical psychological assessments of patients receiving other types of transplants, also voiced concern to MSN News.
"The thing to remember is this can't be casually undertaken. With just limb transplants, some people develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)," said O'Connor. "Although that can be treated, with this procedure you have the idea that you're extending your body image to include something completely new."
Added Bookheimer, "We have representations of ourselves, of our bodies, in our brains; and it is very hard to change that. It would be a rare individual who could make that shift and psychologically accept a new body."
Both clinicians noted that transplant patients currently receiving new organs or limbs have to be on immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives so that their bodies don't reject the donor parts. Recipient's lives are severely shortened, and quality of life can be questionable, with the patient susceptible to infections and requiring close proximity to medical care for constant interventions.
A heart transplant can extend a patient's life about 10 years, noted O'Connor. It is unknown how long a body transplant would hold up. The ethical question is, she says, would you rather live as a tetraplegic for 40 years, or with a new body for 10?
"On the other hand, as with all ethical things, there are at least two sides to the issue," said O'Connor. "The question is, 'What is the greater good?'"
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