The future is now. The pace of technological innovation, steadily eroding the Fi from Sci-Fi, is enough to make a person’s head spin. In the latest episode, Italian doctor Sergio Canavero has announced that he and his team are prepared to complete the world’s first head transplant. Not without risks, Canavero’s upcoming work is nonetheless a radical move towards a more complete understanding of the human body and the outer limits of medical science and medicine.
The potential first human to undergo a head transplant operation is Valery Spiridonov, a Russian program manager in software development who is afflicted with Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a degenerative muscle disorder. Despite the dangers and controversy of the operation, Spiridonov has said he is desperate for a full, mobile life and would rather die trying than live knowing he missed an extraordinary opportunity. “If he is going to die, he is the only one who can decide,” says Canavero.
Canavero’s upcoming operation was perhaps unsurprisingly inspired by comic books, specifically Marvel’s Dr. Strange. Canavero outlined his prospective process in a June 2013 paper and presented it in a keynote address to the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons’s 39th annual conference in 2015. It involves the nearly freezing of the to-be transplanted head, followed by the draining of blood from the brain. After slowing circulation, the head would be removed and painstakingly reattached to its new body using an extremely fine nanoblade to slice through the spinal cords. The team then has precious little time to resume blood flow to the brain as it is attached to its new body. After several months of rehabilitation, the patient, Canavero predicts, should be able to walk.
This plan is not without skeptics. “In my opinion, this procedure has no feasibility at all,” says Dr. Lorenzo Pinessi, director of the Neurology Clinic at Italy’s University of Turin. “It is demented.” Canavero nonetheless has mainstream support for his radical goal. “He’s a little bit fantastic, but he’s a serious guy,” says Dr. Michael Sarr, professor emeritus of surgery at the Mayo Clinic and co-editor-in-chief of Surgery. “He’s not just a showboat. This is not science fiction. This is now science. There’s experimental work that supports the concept of nerve membrane fusion.”