Surgeon Sergio Canavero claims to have successfully performed the first ever human head transplant, but has he really?
How "successful" was this transplant exactly?
Canavero has courted controversy for years. Back in February of 2015, he announced that the successful transplant of a live human head onto another body will happen in two years. Two years and nine months later, he came out with the announcement that he had successfully transplanted one head from a human corpse onto another corpse.
The surgeon announced at a press conference that the procedure involved fusing the blood vessels, spine, and nerves of the head onto the “new” body. He said that he drew inspiration from Frankenstein in stimulating the connected nerves with electricity to see if the procedure had worked. The whole surgery, according to Canavero, lasted for 18 hours. Of course, he says that the next step is to perform the same procedure on a live person.
Sergio Canavero [Photo by Lisi Niesner/EPA]
However, there are a number of red flags in Canavero’s announcement. For one thing, he didn’t release many details about the procedure. He explained how he fused the head onto another body, but he didn’t supply other details, like whether or not he took the organs out of the corpses at any stage in the surgery. He also did not give any information on what kind of equipment he used to sustain the corpses. What he did say, however, is that he will be releasing a scientific paper on the procedure “in the next few days”.
It’s bears noting, however, that Canavero has given details on the procedure, or at least his plans for it, in previous interviews. In an interview from back from July, he said that the ultimate surgery he wanted to accomplish was to slice out the injured spinal cord segments of someone with spinal injury. Canavero would then replace the injured segment with an uninjured one from a donor by gluing it all together with polyethylene glycol. He intended to perform the procedure on an anonymous Chinese national and a brain-dead organ donor.
"I'm into life extension," Canavero said in the same interview. "Life extension and breaching the wall between life and death." He also envisions a future in which people can have their heads transplanted on their own clones.
Will human head transplants ever be successful?
Canavero has also claimed to have detached then reattached the spinal cord of a dog. After this, he published a paper on how he managed to create two-headed rodents. Earlier this year, meanwhile, he published another paper detailing how he also reattached the severed spinal cords of mice using polyethylene glycol. Last year, he also announced that he was able to perform a “successful” head transplant on a monkey.
The use of the word “successful” seems to be the biggest red flag when it comes to all these procedures. What exactly does Canavero consider “successful”? In the case of the monkey head transplant, for example, Canavero was indeed able to perform a monkey head transplant. However, while the monkey head remained alive throughout the procedure, it never regained consciousness. Canavero also did not attach the spinal cord, so even if the monkey did regain consciousness, it would have been paralyzed until death.
Dean Burnett of The Guardian also points out that this recent procedure was done on corpses. “Call me a perfectionist if you must,” Burnett writes, “but I genuinely think that any surgical procedure where the patients or subjects die before it even starts is really stretching the definition of “success” to breaking point.”
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