Sergio Canavero is an Italian neurosurgeon best associated with the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group. In 2015, Canavero shocked the world when he revealed that he intended to oversee the world’s first human head transplant completed by 2017.
On Friday, November 17th, Canavero revealed that a team led by Dr. Xiaoping Ren at Harbin Medical University in China had carried out the world’s first human head transplant on a human corpse. He continued by stating that the genuine first transplant on a living human is ‘imminent’.
Despite this announcement, it appears that Canavero will have to wait a few more years to see his dreams realized; just a few days after the shocking announcement, Dr. Ren revealed that he had completed the ‘first surgical model’ for a transplant, which means that Canavero overestimated what the team did.
With both scientists giving two different streams of information, it’s hard to figure out who to believe in a case that is genuinely as bizarre as it sounds. However, some good may have come out of these unorthodox procedures, with Ren stating that he and his team have found a way to re-grow a spine, through experimentation conducted on a dog. The surgeon and his team stated that the dog’s spine was cut during the experiment and was reconnected with the new head using a chemical compound known as polyethylene glycol.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Canavero and Ren can, in fact, successfully complete the world’s first human head transplant. However, at this point, we can’t deny that there’s a larger conversation to be had regarding the importance of this hypothetical surgery.
As of yet, Neither Ren nor Canavero have released substantial evidence regarding the successes of their various experiments and surgeries. The whole point of this surgery is that, eventually, one head can go on a new body and still appear and function just as before. However, in the case of the dog surgery, Dr. Ren stated that, while the dog could function, it didn’t resemble a normal dog.
The ethics of this hypothetical transplant are murky at best considering the lack of any substantial proof that it will work. However, many severely disabled individuals have already volunteered for the surgery if it were to take place, knowing full-well the risks involved.
What is perhaps most interesting about these events are their implications on the future of surgery itself: a head transplant could be the first step in a larger process leading to the prolonging of life in drastic ways. It is highly likely that if Canavero or Ren perform this operation successfully, many would be willing to partake in it as a means to save them from death, thus leading to a false sense of immortality.7
Beyond just ethics, this surgery, if successful, could open up many doors regarding how we interpret and understand the human body, as well as the brain. As a society, we are still barely able to comprehend the sheer complexity and nuances of the brain, so tacking another brain onto an already deceased body is a far cry.
It’s safe to say that while Dr. Canavero and Dr. Ren may not succeed in their surgery in this lifetime, it certainly will impact and inspire the future generation of healthcare practitioners to follow through with their plans. At the moment, the conversation surrounding this surgery is a whisper, but if more and more people become aware of it, it’ll be a rapturous roar. Though the success of such an operation would be astounding, not everyone will see it in a positive light, given the endless implications this could have on the human race. While many may believe that this story is out of a cheesy, pulpy sci-fi novel, it’s a legitimate possibility that we may have to face if Dr. Canavero and Dr. Ren follow through with the world’s first human head transplant.
Written by Aahil Dayani/ Image Source
Knapton, Sarah. “World’s First Human Head Transplant a Success, Controversial Scientist Claims.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 17 Nov. 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/11/17/worlds-first-human-head-transplant-successfully-carried/.
Mezzofiore, Hannah Osborne Gianluca. “Sergio Canavero: Head Transplants Will Lead to Immortality and ‘Change Story of Humanity Forever’.” International Business Times UK, International Business Times , 22 May 2015, www.ibtimes.co.uk/sergio-canavero-head-transplants-will-lead-immortality-change-story-humanity-forever-1502526.
You, Tracy. “We’ve Got Ahead of Ourselves: Surgeon Who Carried out ‘World’s First Head Transplant’ DENIES It Was a Success after Italian Doctor Claimed Operation on a LIVE Patient Was ‘Imminent’.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 21 Nov. 2017, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5103213/World-s-head-transplant-corpse-not-completed.html.