New technology has been found that will facilitate head transplantation. However, attempts to transplant a head began earlier. In 1970, Robert White, an American neurosurgeon, with his colleagues, successfully transplanted the head of a rhesus monkey on the body of another one, whose head had been removed. The monkey lived 8 days and was normal, having suffered no complications. Although, White had predicted this to be fully accomplishable in human beings, there did not exist technology for reconnection of donor and recipient spinal cords.

Today, not only the technology exists but also has a volunteer to test it. A 30 year old Russian man, Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from a rare incurable muscle condition called Werdnig-Hoffmann disorder or spinal muscular atrophy, has decided to undergo the surgery. He hopes that the surgery will prolong his life and also contribute to scientific research.

The operation is said to last up to 36 hours and will cost an approximate of $11 million. Needless to say, it is a tedious procedure that will require the assistance of around 150 doctors and nurses. It is going to be headed by Dr. Sergio Canavero, a renowned neurosurgeon and director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Turin, Italy.

The procedure is called “HEAVEN”, an acronym for “head anastomosis venture”. Dr. Canavero explained that a brain dead but otherwise healthy person is to be the donor body for Spiridonov. To prolong the survival period of brain cells without oxygen, Spiridonov’s brain will be cooled down to between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. An especially sharp scalpel will be used to cut the spinal cord which will then be reconnected to the new body with special biological glue. Once the operation is finished Spiridonov will be put into a coma for around three to four weeks to prevent any movement, and his body will take immunosuppressents so the body doesn’t reject the new head.

Though the surgery would be a giant leap for science, some doctors are critical of it. Dr. Hunt Batjer, president elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, told CNN, “I would not wish this on anyone. I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.”

The surgery would result in the patient having great psychological issues. Body image and identity issues will need to be addressed. The patient’s perception of the transplant will have to be continuously re-addressed by the psychiatrists to ensure that positive, but realistic expectations are maintained.

Arthur Caplan, the director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Centre, described Dr. Canavero as ‘nuts’. He believes that the transplant patient would end up being overwhelmed with different pathways and chemistry than they are used to and they’d go crazy. It is feared that it could cause the 30-year-old patient to suffer levels of insanity never experienced before.

HEAVEN also needs to face ethical dilemmas. Is it right to fuse two individuals? If this is to happen, then do we really want to see Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein come to life soon? However, it cannot be completely rejected because it does offer hope to those who suffer a great deal from incurable diseases. It is undoubtedly groundbreaking research that needs to undergo some checks and some more study.


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