• Question: Do you believe Dr Sergio Canavero will be able to preform the first head transplant successfully?

    Asked by Rasik_npl to Ed, Kerrianne, Oli, yoyehudi on 15 Nov 2017.
    • Photo: Kerrianne Harrington

      Kerrianne Harrington answered on 15 Nov 2017:

      This could just be my ignorance, because this is not my field of research… but I don’t think it will be successful. I think it’s too soon! The scientific community and experts in the press seem very critical of the procedure working in 2017 too.

      How will blood be continuously supplied to the brain (three minutes without blood or oxygen will cause irreversible brain damage)? Without the connection to the brain, how will the body regulate breathing or heart beats? Maaaybe you could over come these issues, we have machinery that can help us breathe, or pump our heart for us, etc, and these issues are similar to other organ donation issues. However, my biggest problem is the spine! This is a big bundle of connections from our brain to the rest of our body, and I think it’s very hard to fix one part to another! There are literally thousands of connections that all need to meet up and then stay fixed to each other. How on earth can anyone sever it, and then perfectly reconnect it to another body, while keeping both head and body functioning.

      If the surgery itself goes well, there is then the possibility that the organ transplants can be rejected by the body. This could happen for this transplant too.

      I just don’t think we’re quite there yet with our current capabilities. But I guess we’ll find out!

    • Photo: Oli Wilson

      Oli Wilson answered on 16 Nov 2017:

      I don’t think I’d heard of this guy, but I had a look. I’m with Kerrianne on this, I don’t think it’ll be possible, definitely not in the time period they want. Earlier this year Canavero’s team tried it on rats and had only moderate success – they all died within two days – and you wouldn’t expect to move from rats to humans quickly at all. You can read about it here if you want – I found the photos a bit disturbing https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/head-transplant-rat-china-sergio-canavero-xiaoping-ren-a7709161.html
      More than the technical problems, though, might be the psychological problems. I agree with the final quote in the article – “I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.” People who have had face or hand transplants (and there have only been very few) have had to spend years getting used to the changes to their body – taking months referring to ‘the hands’ before eventually moving to ‘*my* hands’, for example. So much of our identity is tied up in how we look, so changes to our face can be incredibly hard to deal with – whether it’s an injury or a subsequent transplant. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to cope with an entirely different head.

    • Photo: Ed Bracey

      Ed Bracey answered on 16 Nov 2017:

      No I really don’t.
      The experiments he claims he’s done have not been thorough and have not been performed or published properly.
      To the scientific community, this looks really dodgy.
      Apart from the very risky surgery, which I suspect he will be able to perform without the patient dying, the main problem will be that the spinal cord has been completely cut, and it needs to be connected with the spinal cord of the new body.
      Normally, once the spinal cord is severed, helper cells move into the area and form a scar.
      This makes it effectively impossible for nerve cells from the upper part of the spinal cord to grow through the scar so they can reconnect with the lower part and control the rest of the body and also receive sensory information from it, like touch.
      Canavero claims they will use a chemical called poly ethylene glycol (PEG) to help bring the cut ends together.
      This may have worked in some mice, but these studies are hard to verify and anyway, mice and rats are better at re-growing nerve cells than us, so it likely won’t translate to a human well.
      They claim they cut the spinal cord of a dog and put in PEG, and the dog recovered movement in its legs, suggesting that the spinal cord was reconnected.
      But they haven’t shown proper evidence that they actually severed properly in the first place.
      It’s very unlikely the solution will be this simple as putting one chemical in.
      There would likely have to be a complicated cocktail of different chemicals to encourage nerves to connect with the donor body’s nerves, or more likely, grow through the cut end and make connections with other nerve cells further down the spinal cord to restore function.

      I think Canavero and his patient are making a big mistake.
      He may be caught up in his own story and self belief.
      If the patient survives the extremely dangerous surgery, they will likely not have any feeling in their new body and will not be able to move it either.
      Here’s a good breakdown of what scientists are thinking about it: