Above: The last dog head transplant performed by Soviet scientist Vladimir Demikhov in East Germany on January 13, 1959 (Günter Weiß, Wikimedia Commons)

It is a scene straight from a horror movie. You wake up in a hospital bed and realize your head is attached to someone else’s body! But this nightmare could soon happen in real life. An Italian neurosurgeon named Sergio Canavero plans on using cutting-edge medical technology to transplant a human head onto a brain-dead donor body.

The head belongs to Valery Spiridonov, a Russian computer scientist who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman Disease. This genetic disease degrades the nerve cells in the spinal cord and brainstem, weakening the muscles and sometimes making it difficult to breathe. Because of Werdnig-Hoffman disease, Spiridonov is now a quadriplegic. He’ll have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. That is, unless Dr. Canavero can give him a new body.

A successful transplant would also mean that other surgeons could use the procedure on other quadriplegics. But what are the consequences of body swapping? Just because doctors can do this procedure, does that mean they should? Is any of this even ethical?

Did you know? Doctors in Canada must follow the Canadian Medical Association's Code of Ethics. It clearly states that doctors must not exploit (use) patients for personal gain.

Who is Dr. Canavero?

One big question is the motive behind the surgery. Is Dr. Canavero really a kind-hearted surgeon trying to improve Spiridonov’s quality of life? Or is this surgery just a way for him to become more famous?

Canavero claims a successful head transplant could lead to other medical breakthroughs. He imagines a future where older people will be able to create clones of themselves and transfer their heads onto these younger bodies. He says that saving great minds from their own decaying bodies is something that would benefit all of society.

What do other doctors have to say about this?

Many health professionals disagree with Dr. Canavero. Some doctors have raised scientific objections to the idea of a head transplant. In an editorial, the Head of Medical Ethics of New York University opposes the operation on these grounds. He argues that doctors don’t yet have the ability to successfully complete the procedure. Other doctors have pointed out that the immune system might reject the head transplant, leading to some terrible side effects for the patient.

Some doctors also worry about the ethics of the procedure. That’s because it will lead to a completely unknown outcome. Medical research ethics are based on the idea of non-maleficence, which is a fancy way of saying that a procedure should not harm the patient.

It is possible that a head transplant could leave a patient worse off than they were to begin with. No one knows how well the brain will work with its new body. Some doctors predict that the patient might end up insane, or severely mentally disabled. One doctor has even said: “I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.”

Did you know? In 1954, Soviet scientist Vladimir Demikhov sewed the head of a puppy to the body of a bigger dog. He eventually did this with 20 different puppy head/dog body combinations, but all of the animals died within a month.

Body-Swapping Success

Dr. Canavero points out that researchers have already completed a similar head transplant at the Harbin Medical University in China. But in that case, the head and the body belonged to monkeys! And the researchers only connected the blood vessels between the donor body and the transplanted head. They did not try to connect the spinal cord.

What do you think?

Is this procedure just one doctor’s pipe dream? Or does it give new hope to quadriplegics? The jury is still out!

On the one hand, the first human head transplant patient could come out of the operation with minimal neurological damage and an improved quality of life. This could set a new standard for how surgeons treat paralysis. It could even lead to a future where people can swap their aging bodies for younger, fitter ones.

On the other hand, the procedure could worsen Spiridinov’s condition while contributing nothing to scientific knowledge of neurological disorders.

Only time will tell whether this is the next leap in regenerative medicine, or just a whacked-out idea from a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein.

Learn more!

About human head transplants:

Other types of transplants:

Head transplant carried out on monkey, claims maverick surgeon (2016)
S. Wong, New Scientist

Vladimir P. Demikhov, a Pioneer of Organ Transplantation (2011)
R.M. Langer, Transplantation Proceedings 43

Michael Wahba

Hailing from Calgary, Alberta, I recently completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Science at the University of Calgary. My research focused on the effects of water-based contaminants on vertebrate aquatic populations. Outside of the lab, I am a voracious reader who loves to talk about where we have been as a species and speculating on where we will go. I have always had a passion for science and a drive to share that passion with others.