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This article was published on June 30, 2017

Human head transplants, and the mad scientist who’ll perform them

Human head transplants, and the mad scientist who’ll perform them
Tristan Greene
Story by

Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

The mysterious work of Dr. Sergio Canavero is the stuff of grade-B horror movies. He claims he’s successfully attached a living mouse head to a rat, severed the spines of mice, and perhaps most impressively: reattached them.

His quest for the scientific holy grail lead to papers detailing two-headed creatures, a transplanted dog’s head, and bold claims about the first human head-transplant — which he plans to undertake later this year. Beyond that he’s said that he will be able to resuscitate a frozen brain within a few years.

Dr. Canavero has a reputation for making medical claims that sound a bit far-fetched, and that’s not for nothing. He doesn’t just want to solve the problem with spinal reattachment, nor are his sights set on simply performing the world’s first human head transplant. Canavero insists that his ultimate goal is that most quixotic of pursuits: immortality.

Dr. Frankenstein for a modern era

The medical community has its concerns. For one, Canavero would have to attach millions of tiny nerves, a problem he says he’s solved by using a fusogen (sealant) comprised of polyethylene glycol (PEG). This gel substance works like a glue. It’s nothing new: PEG is used in a variety of biological and commercial applications, such as laxatives and skin cream.

In his research paper, Canavero explains:

…a sufficient number of axonal proximal stumps get fused with the distal counterparts in such a way to ensure appropriate electrophysio-logical conduction, likely the result of tight axonal packing. This number is likely low (10–15%), and yet enough for recovery, reflecting the potential for substantial plasticity in the injured

This is an observation by Dr. Canavero, not an explanation. His work, often, reads like that. He reports results without overcoming the obstacles we have in understanding how he arrived there. Other scientists are less kind, calling him an outright provocateur of the impossible. He’s been called crazy by the media.

Where’s the proof?

Dr. Canavero continues to publish papers with tantalizing claims, while offering little in the way of explanation. Is he a fraud? The relative ease with which we can dismiss him certainly makes it seem that way.

Why isn’t he the most famous doctor in the world? Why aren’t neurosurgeons around the globe leaping on the bandwagon?

The answer lies in the fact he’s beholden to no institute or research group. An Italian scientist is performing work that’s, usually, banned in Europe and the US —  without the assistance of a laboratory headquarters. He’s bounced around from Russia to China in search of government support and a lot of that is difficult to track.

His problems run deeper than procedure, or financing. There are legitimate ethical concerns.

When Doctor Canavero claims he’s severed the spines of 18 mice and only reattached those of 9 some of us cringe. Upon discovering that he’s performed the procedure on a dog, there are plenty — who were okay with him butchering rats — that now draw the line when it’s man’s best friend he’s experimenting on.

Imagine then, what happens when he tries the operation with people. The head transplant is going to require three humans to put their lives on the line. And there’s no road back from losing patients in an experiment that, ethically at-least, the world just isn’t ready for.

The surgery requires funding, the results must be self-evident, and science requires peer-review before anyone in the United States or Europe would take him seriously. Trying to make the world believe you can do things no other surgeon would even attempt seems like a pretty big bluff, if he’s lying.

Everything about these alleged medical feats seems shrouded in mystique; it’s all very cloak-and-dagger. The research papers read like the manifestations of a Doctor with a charmed life; everything works perfectly according to hypothesis.

It’s 2017 and Dr. Canavero claims he’s performing mind-blowing procedures; it boggles the mind that he doesn’t have hundreds of hours of video evidence to support his claims. Instead there’s been vague research papers and larger-than-life claims to go on. What he’s really doing — and who is helping him — remain a mystery. 

Dr. Canavero should then be content to toil away in his evil hide-out. He should remain ambiguous in his explanations. The better for the rest of us to ignore his insanity. Unless he’s right.

What happens if he’s right?

The other result, a successful human head-transplant, seems improbable; yet it must be considered. The ramifications of being able to reconnect spinal tissue go far beyond solving paralysis: they’re the first step to living forever.

But there are numerous problems with this procedure. It presents a tapestry of difficulty that the greatest of medical minds — so far — haven’t come close to overcoming. Probably because his work is the stuff of fantasy made with whimsical predictions, but perhaps our modern Dr. Frankenstein has unlocked the secrets and we’ll all be believers soon. 

The scientific community seems to be largely ignoring Dr. Canavero, and when they aren’t, they certainly don’t have many kind things to say. He’s a pseudo-scientist, some have said – others have pointed out that what he’s talking about simply can’t be done yet.

The picture being painted, of a mad scientist, doesn’t take many brush strokes. His seemingly endless amount of confidence in his work piques the interest, but at the same time it puts off rational conversation.

In the improbable event that he were to pull off his claims; the world would be stunned. We’d have to be; this is as big as time-travel, or proof of intelligent life beyond our planet. Science would have to take him seriously if he somehow raised the funding, found the right place, and pulled off the first human head-transplant.

It would be hailed miraculous

The world would pay attention to his thoughts on frozen brains, and other fancies of science fiction. The quack would become the authority! He’d be a leading voice in the medical and science communities.

Whether he’s playing God or not seems to be a question we can only answer if he succeeds. Failure, though likely, would be far less interesting. The mystery surrounding Dr. Canavero will surely fade once he becomes another obscure dreamer whose rhetoric far exceeded his reach.

Unless he succeeds, in which case we won’t be able to say ‘we called it’ –but at least we considered it.