Getting ahead in life

Head transplants are a familiar theme in B-grade sci fi films which lends itself to an infinitude of excruciating puns. But according to an Italian scientist, it could happen within two years. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group want to use the technique to help people with degenerative diseases like ALS or whose bodies are riddled with cancer. He told New Scientist “the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body's immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017.”

Other scientists are sceptical. “"I don't believe it will ever work, there are too many problems with the procedure,” one neurosurgeon told NS. However, Dr Canavero plans to present his ideas at the annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland, in June.

The project presents both philosophical and bioethical conundrums. First of all, since the higher cognitive functions which are commonly thought to be “us” take place in the head, it is more accurate to speak of a body transplant. Would people try to extend their life by transplanting their heads onto a younger or more beautiful body? Could it be the ultimate way to lose weight?

Where would the bodies come from? Deceased donors? Euthanased donors? Altruistic donors? And it might be hard to negotiate laws which assume that a decapitated person is a dead person. A transplant might be seen as murder. Even the  optimistic Dr Canavero believes that it would be a year before the patient is walking again. 

The problems are huge, but NS shares Canavero’s optimism. “Every advance in transplantation has seemed outlandish at first, from hearts to hands to faces, but in each case, doubts have given way to appreciation.”

In fact, there have been some promising results from work on mice. According to NS, “ Xiao-Ping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China recently showed that it is possible to perform a basic head transplant in a mouse (CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics). Ren will attempt to replicate Canavero's protocol in the next few months in mice, and monkeys.” 

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