No, there has not been a successful human head transplant

At a 2015 TEDx convention, Sergio Canavero created a daring and tantalizing claim: by 2017, he declared, he would run the first human head transplant. And if you’ve been paying attention to trending headlines today, you might think he’s followed through on this promise.

He’s not.

Canavero hasn’t finished a successful human mind transplant, and it’s very unlikely that he’ll ever do so.

We repeat: No one has completed a successful human head transplant.

Here Is What you should know:

The claim

Sergio Canavero has popped in and out of medical news for the past several decades, but made headlines in 2015 when he discovered a willing subject for the surgery he expected to perform: the human head transplant.

An individual head transplant is exactly what it sounds like. The individual–likely someone with a degenerative muscle disease–would have their head removed and attached to a given body. In theory, an individual could fix nearly any physical ailment for this transplantation. If you’d been paralyzed, then you could pop the portion of you that makes you-you on a fully-functional body.

“For too long nature has conducted her rules,” Canavero stated in a press conference. “For millions of years, people have evolved and 100 billion people have died ever since. That is genocide on a mass scale. We have entered an age where we will take our fate in our hands. It will change everything. It will change you at every level.”

If this type of process became widely accessible, it might set up some mind-blowing shifts in human society. At best, we can live in a Twilight Zone-esque globe where anyone with enough money could rotate through flawless young bodies for as long as doctors could continue to keep their brains healthy (which still sounds pretty awful). At worst, well, anyone who’s seen the movie Get Out can imagine a few horrific unintended outcomes.

What’s so difficult about transplanting a head?

Past the kind-of-icky consequences of this procedure (Frankenstein and the taboos about interfering with dead bodies spring to mind), it’s not an idea completely devoid of virtue. Most scientists and physicians would assert that time would be better spent perfecting the procedures we use to solve issues piece by piece, but it will be good if a single operation might have a quadriplegic walking again.

Some matters are rather easy to transplant. Take the heart, for instance. Yes, heart surgery is inherently harmful, but there are comparatively few pipes for physicians to reconnect to the receiver’s plumbing system.

The spinal cord is very different

Doctors have not successfully reconnected a fully detached spinal cord. To get a completely severed spinal cord to be attracted back to functionality there are millions of nerve connections that need to be connected back together, and all these are wildly tough to rejoin.

Consider the current rash of groundbreaking new transplants for example ones to substitute the penis, face, palms, or uterus. Each completed its own controversies, and demanded years of collaboration among leading surgeons in their various specialties. In 2017, we have only just started to attach hands in this way that nerves will join and function well enough to create the appendages useable. Accomplishing the identical feat with an entire body would be a monumental achievement.

In reality, many question if he even hopes to be successful in the endeavor.

Another matter is the brain

Another matter is the brain, which is a distinctive and delicate organ. It begins to deteriorate past repair within moments of shedding its blood supply. A freshly-harvested heart, packed with ice, can endure an airlift into the torso it will soon call home. Even cooled down, could a mind be held in stasis long enough to survive since surgeons plucked it out of its native blood source and meticulously made the relations that could provide it with the support of a new body? It does not seem likely, particularly when one considers the fact that any harm to the brain could potentially negate the whole purpose of the transplant.

That brings us to a different barrier. Unlike the transplantation of internal organs, the reception of items like penises, faces, and hands pose a high risk of emotional rejection. The first successful penis transplantation was shortly after cut, when the troubled patient advised doctors to remove his brand new genitalia. Face transplants pose a similar problem; all organ recipients must take drugs to curb a rejection of the organ by their immune system, but using a cadaver’s tissue at the location where you saw something as defining and familiar as your face or manhood can be deeply troubling.

Why are people saying he did a transplantation of a head?

Canavero’s “successful” transplant has been conducted using two corpses. Now, it’s important to perform brand new surgeries on corpses. It is not something you want to do free-hand using a live patient without a little practice.

Canavero declared an 18-hour surgery on a cadaver and says he will proceed to optimize the process with brain-dead organ donors.

“That is only the beginning of what is needed in order to get a functioning physiological system,” Neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote in The Guardian. “There is still a thing to do. You are able to weld two halves of unique automobiles together and call it a success if you prefer, but if the minute that you turn the key in the ignition the entire thing explodes, most would be hard pressed to back you up on your own brilliance.”

However, it seems as the surgeon is all talk. If he has really and truly figured out the best way to fuse two unrelated spinal columns together, why on earth has not he shared his approaches with surgeons who work on spinal injuries?

One thing is definitely correct, it’s highly improbable that body transplants will ever develop into a go-to therapy, and they likely will not ever exist in any way.


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