Last year, an article circulating the Interwebs claimed that the first successful head transplant has been performed in South Africa. Snopes swiftly debunked the notion, stating that the hoax was:

[…] Coincident with current news that Italian physician Dr. Sergio Canavero had lined up a volunteer subject for his planned attempt at undertaking the first human head transplant [..]

Dr. Canavero’s plans for effecting a human head transplant are expected to be at least two years away, and no such transplant has been undertaken (successfully or otherwise) in the meanwhile.

Of course, the fact that the hoax actually echoed a real story made me curious. Who is this crazy doctor – and, moreover, who is the crazy volunteer – that wants to do the procedure?

Dr. Canavero is an Italian neurosurgeon and a member of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons. He seems to have a penchant for trouble-making:

Recently, [Dr. Canavero] made the news for pushing cortical brain stimulation in the rehabilitation of criminal psychopaths in place of the death penalty.

His seeking fame, however, does not make him wrong. He is teaming up with Dr. Xiaoping Ren at Harbin Medical University, China, whose team has “carried out a head transplant on a monkey“. Close enough?

And here’s Sputnik News on the volunteer:

Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia, suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease — a rare genetic muscle wasting condition, also referred to as type 1 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

Imagine how the man, whose condition continues to worsen, must feel.

So, how close are we really to a head transplant? Is it even a head transplant, or, more accurately, a body transplant? How would it work, exactly? Newsweek explains:

It’s a 36-hour, $20 million procedure involving at least 150 people, including doctors, nurses, technicians, psychologists and virtual reality engineers.

In a specially equipped hospital suite, two surgical teams will work simultaneously—one focused on Spiridonov and the other on the donor’s body, selected from a brain-dead patient and matched with the Russian for height, build and immunotype. Both patients—anesthetized and outfitted with breathing tubes—will have their heads locked using metal pins and clamps, and electrodes will be attached to their bodies to monitor brain and heart activity. Next, Spiridonov’s head will be nearly frozen, ultimately reaching 12 to 15 degrees Celsius, which will make him temporarily brain-dead.

Doctors will then drain his brain of blood and flush it with a standard surgery solution. A vascular surgeon will loop sleeve-like tubes made of Silastic (a silicone-plastic combination) around the carotid arteries and jugular veins; these tubes will be tightened to stop blood flow and later loosened to allow circulation when the head and new body are connected. Then the two teams, working in concert, will make deep incisions around each patient’s neck and use color-coded markings to note all the muscles in both Spiridonov’s head and that of the donor, to facilitate the reconnection.

Next comes the most critical step of all. Under an operating microscope, doctors will cleanly chop through both spinal cords—with a $200,000 diamond nanoblade, so thin that it is measured in angstroms, provided by the University of Texas. Then the rush is on: Once sliced, Spiridonov’s head will have to be attached to the donor’s body and connected to the blood flow within an hour. (When the head is transferred, the main vessels will be clamped to prevent air from causing a blockage.) Surgeons will quickly sew the arteries and veins of Spiridonov’s head to those of his new body. The donor’s blood flow will then, in theory, re-warm Spiridonov’s head to normal temperatures within minutes.

This also sparks another discussion: if I can “switch” bodies, can my mind live forever, just like if it were digitized and uploaded into Megabrain? Is this a (or another) way to achieve immortality?

Your Thoughts, Transplanted

… into my email, sabbatical@mashakrol.com – or in the comments below 🙂 What do you guys think?

Source: Weighing the ethical implications of the first head transplant via AirTalk.

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