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Controversial Neurosurgeon Completes Successful Head Transplant On A Corpse

Virtual reality system developed for first ever head transplant patient


Italian Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero announced his team have completed a successful head transplant on a corpse. The surgeon said they will release a detailed report of the procedure on a surgical journal. 
( Jeff J Mitchell | Getty Images )

Controversial neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero claimed that head transplant surgeries will soon become an accepted procedure as his team successfully accomplished a head transplant on a cadaver.

The Italian surgeon announced on Friday, Nov. 17, during a press conference in Vienna that his team from Harbin Medical University in China was able to transfer a head between two corpses. Canavero added that a surgical journal will release a more detailed report of the said procedure in a few days.

“The first human transplant on human cadavers has been done,” said Canavero, according to The Telegraph. “A full head swap between brain dead organ donors is the next stage.”

The Future Of Head Transplants

With the head transplant between two brain-dead donors next in Canavero’s plans, is there really a high chance for this to push through?

There were numerous, less controversial transplants done in the past. In 2012, Andrew Sandness underwent a facial transplant procedure after a gunshot damaged his face, leaving him with only two teeth and no jaw and nose.

However, head transplant is a radical procedure. Many experts question its scientific possibility and ethical consequences.

On a scientific point of view, Michael Sarr, editor of the journal Surgery and a former Mayo Clinic surgeon, explained that what Canavero wants to achieve is quite impossible. He explained that when doctors sever a nerve, its “downstream side” or the region that receives the signal dies. The “upstream side” or the region of the nerve that produces the signal also dies but eventually regrows to only about a foot-length provided that a “downstream channel” is present.

This is the medical basis behind amputation and re-implantation of extremities. Amputated and re-implanted wrists can still regain function, while amputated shoulders will not result to a purposeful hand.

“What Canavero will do differently is bathe the ends of the nerves in a solution that stabilizes the membranes and put them back together,” explained Sarr. “The nerves will be fused, but won’t regrow. And he will do this not in the peripheral nerves such as you find in the arm, but in the spinal cord, where there’s multiple types of nerve channels.”

Canavero, the proponent behind the HEAVEN procedure, also previously reported a successful head transplant between two rats.

Head Transplant And Its Ethical Implications

Aside from overcoming the hurdle of medical feasibility, Canavero and his goals of head transplant still need to answer whether the procedure should indeed happen or not.

Medical practitioners raise concerns about the ethical implications of the procedure, citing that there are no scientific studies with animal models that can support Canavero’s claims. Assya Pascalev, a biomedical ethicist at Howard University, claims that revolutionary procedures are strong magnets of criticisms and objections. There is also the issue of regulation. Pascalev also raised concern about some legal issues that will result from the procedure.

“It’s not just about a head adjusting to a new body. We might be dealing with a whole new person,” added Pascalev.

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