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Head Transplant?


Last year while teaching my Organ and Joint Replacement Topics course, I ran across this story of a man from Russia that had volunteered to be the first person to do a head transplant. Being the skeptic that I am, I had to research this to find out if it was even legit. It was. *cue terrified shudder*

Valery Spiridonov¬†suffers from a muscle wasting disease, forcing him to live his life trapped in a body that won’t work but a mind that is fully functional. I can’t even imagine what such a life must be like for someone. But the idea of taking this man’s head and somehow being able to re-attach it to someone elses body seems so ludicrous.

I delved into the reasoning behind this and what made doctors even think they could do such a complex procedure. The surgeon, Sergio Canavero, claims that he can re-attach Spiridonov’s head to a donor body such that the man will regain his mobility.

There are so many issues with this procedure. If we look at what happens when humans are given single organs as transplants, it’s a monumental task to keep the body from rejecting the organ. Imagine what that means for attempting to get a body to accept a foreign head. Not to mention this brain that has grown used to controlling a body from conception is now forced to adapt to a completely new body. And what about the spinal cord? Hundreds of millions of neurons with extraordinarily complex connections that a surgeon is supposed to be able to re-attach perfectly to allow the individual to control the body?

During organ transplantation, there is a narrow window from the time the organ is harvested to the time when it has to be placed in the recipient before the organ suffers irreparable damage. According to research done with monkeys, the entire surgery has to take place in a hour. A kidney transplant takes 2-3 hours. I can’t imagine being able to transplant an entire head in under an hour.

The process of science involves bench work followed by animal studies followed by human trials. This order is crucial for many reasons. It’s not acceptable to cause pain and suffering to animals if the procedure or drug being tested doesn’t have merit. From what I could find in my research, none of the animals ever regained mobility and most didn’t live past a few days. What makes Canavero think that a human would last any longer?

And then there’s the question that scares me the most: how is a donor going to be found? The person that dies has to be in perfect physical condition or the person having his head transplanted will gain a body with a faulty heart or lungs or kidneys. What are the chances that a young person will die of some sort of brain trauma and suffer exactly zero damage to their body? Add to this little issue that the body donor will have to be a match for MHC (like other organs) to lessen the severity of a rejection.

I read a recent article that Spiridonov has all but given up on the head transplant idea and is instead looking to tried and true surgical methods in an attempt to help him gain more quality of life.

I understand that someone in Spiridonov’s position would be desperate to try anything to lead a more normal and independent life. But there are fates worse than what he’s facing now.

What are your thoughts?

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