What happens when your body no longer works? Maybe you are given a terminal diagnosis of cancer or some other debilitating illness and you find yourself wishing for a miracle. If you are in such a pickle, then heads up!
A special transplant may be on the horizon.
It started as early as the 50s. Russian Scientist Vladimir Demikhov performed the first head transplant on a canine.
Both the head and forepaws were successfully mounted on the body of a healthy dog.
Although the procedure seemed to go well, after 6 days, the animal was dead.
This doesn’t seem very successful at all.
In the 1970s, Dr. Robert White conducted the first monkey head transplant. His many years of surgical experience offered a way to successfully replace the head of a brain dead subject with a healthy head and brain. The experiment raised a few concerns: Was the surgery immoral by religious standards and most importantly, would the procedure work?
Yes and No – the procedure was somewhat successful – the subject could see, hear, taste and experience basic facial movements, but the animal was left paralyzed. It was apparent that the monkey was indeed alive, but miserable!
Dr. Sergio Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, first offered the idea of human head transplant in 2013. He wished to help those who suffer from terminal cancer or patients with paralysis.
Canavero states: “The issue of preventing tissue rejection and problems with fusing the spinal cord are the main concerns.”
In June of this year, Canavero will present the project details to the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons (AANOS). Canavero plans to conduct the surgery in 2016 or 2017.
The basics of the procedure
To begin, Canavero will dissect tissues in the incision. Blood vessels will be linked using tubing. After other tissues are severed, the spinal cord will be cut. It will be important to make a clean cut, keeping cord tissues intact-yet separated.
At this point, the head will be reattached to the donor body. In order to fuse the spinal cord to its new location, the donor area will be flushed with polyethylene glycol and then connected to the other portion of the spinal cord. After the head is connected to the body, with blood vessels fused together, the severed area will be injected with yet another dose of polyethylene glycol. There are hopes that this will work as well as when fats are fused together in other parts of the body.
After the procedure, the patient will be kept in a coma to prevent movements. As the patient sleeps, electrodes will be used to provide continued electrical stimulation. This helps mesh the spinal cord and strengthen nerve connections.
Upon waking, the patient will think, feel and even speak normally. After a year of physical therapy, Canavero surmises that the patient will also be able to walk.
It seems there are plenty volunteers for a head transplant. There is, however, a reason why Canavero set a date for the year 2017. In 2013, Canavero was contacted with a 60 word email by an enthusiastic sufferer of Werdnig-Hoffman disease, named Valerie Spiridonov. Canavero’s project was just underway. Spiridonov was excited by the prospect of extending his life, since the disease had an estimated life expectancy of 20 years. He has little to lose with the experiment.
When asked why he wanted the public to know of his decision, Spiridonov said,
“When the world witnessed the first man in space, they were astonished and in awe. I want the world to see this as a great milestone, that I was the first successful head transplant patient.”
Spiridonov is scared but prepared for the procedure. Funding is of question, as well as why Canavero chose his subject over other volunteers. There is a method to his madness it seems.
The human head transplant – will it work?
Keep ahead of the game and stay tuned to the year 2017. We will know soon enough whether the world has surpassed yet another great obstacle of science, and of medicine.
What Makes Canavero Think It’s Possible?
It may sound like something out of Frankenstein or The Island Of Doctor Moreau, but real scientists are working on making head transplants viable.
As we stated above, in 1970, neurosurgeon Robert White transplanted the head from one monkey onto the body of another. The monkey’s spinal cord was never attached to its new body, so it remained paralyzed, but blood circulating to its brain meant the monkey could reportedly still see, hear, smell, and taste. Eventually, the body’s immune system rejected the foreign head, and the monkey died.
Last November, Ren and a team of Chinese researchers managed to exchange the heads of 18 mice. The transplanted heads had normal brain functioning. They were able to blink and wiggle their whiskers, but they were paralyzed from the neck down. They survived for about three hours after they were removed from a ventilator.
So, yeah, human head transplants could be possible by 2017, but it’s not likely to be a very pleasant or long-lasting experience for the head donor.
What Are The Problems?
The biggest issue, of course, is connecting the spinal cord to the brain, so that the head can control its new body. Canavero suggests that scientists could use a growth-stimulating chemical called polyethylene glycol to join the neurons. This chemical has been shown to help heal spinal cord injuries in rats. Other researchers are using electronics to bridge the gap in rats’ broken spinal cords. Whether these methods will work to connect the spinal cords of two different animals (or people) is untested. If the site develops scar tissue—which is not uncommon during transplants—it could prevent the neurons from fusing together.
“This technology is way off from this type of clinical use in humans, though it has great potential,” says Jaimie Shores, a hand surgeon from Johns Hopkins.
Even if you could fuse them, there’s no guarantee that the two halves could send useful information back and forth. “There is no evidence that the connectivity of cord and brain would lead to useful sentient or motor function following head transplantation,” Richard Borgens, director of the Center for Paralysis Research at Purdue University, told New Scientist.
Canavero’s procedure would require patients to lie in a coma for up to four weeks while the spinal cords were fusing together, to ensure they don’t get twisted out of place during movement. That’s also a potential problem, says Harry Goldsmith, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Davis. Medically induced comas are usually a last resort for doctors, as they carry some risk of blood clots, infection, and reduced brain activity.
The surgery would also be a difficult one. If the brain goes without oxygen for too long, it could die.
And we haven’t even gotten started on the ethical issues—like who should get a full-body transplant, when that body could have helped so many people waiting for organ donations? Or how does putting your head on someone else’s body affect your sense of self?
These problems may be worked out someday. But not within the next few years. Scientists will first have to solve these problems in animal models before head transplantation ever moves into human trials. That could take many years, if it ever happens at all.
“There is no way this will happen by 2017, in the US at least,” says Shores. While Canavero has mentioned trialling the research in other countries where scientific and ethical regulations aren’t so strict, Shores advises against it. “There are countries with much less regulation and oversight than here in the U.S. where people have done some very controversial transplants that have resulted in the death of the patient.”
Goldsmith, similarly, doesn’t see it happening any time soon. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but I think this is going to be an extremely difficult project … “When you think of all this happening within the next 24 months, it seems highly unlikely.”
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