It may sound something from a work of science fiction but the idea of a head transplant may soon become a reality with doctors aiming at carrying out this procedure as early as 2017.
Sergio Canavero, from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, is spearheading a project that aims to make head transplant a reality in just two years.
The Italian surgeon, who plans to announce the ambitious project at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopedic Surgeons (AANOS) conference in Maryland later this year, sees the surgery as something that could help extend the lives of individuals who have advanced stages of cancer and those whose nerves and muscles have degenerated.
In a paper published in the Surgical Neurology International on Feb. 3, Canavero summarized the technique for transplanting a head into a body. The procedure involves cooling the donor's body and the recipient's head so their cells can survive longer without oxygen. After dissecting the neck tissue, major blood vessels are hooked using tiny tubes. The spinal cords of both the donor and the recipient are then cut.
"The key to spinal cord fusion (SCF) is a sharp severance of the cords themselves, with its attendant minimal damage to both the axons in the white matter and the neurons in the gray laminae," Canavero wrote. "A specially fashioned diamond microtomic snare-blade is one option."
The head of the recipient is then moved into the body of the donor and the two ends of the spinal cord are joined together with the help of a chemical known as polyethylene glycol that would encourage the weaving of the fat in the cell membranes just as hot water allows spaghetti to stick together.
The muscles and the blood supplies are then linked together and the recipient stays in coma for up to four weeks to avoid movement. The spinal cord will be provided with regular electrical stimulation using implanted electrodes.
Canavero said that the recipient would be capable of moving and feeling his face and even speak with the same voice once he wakes up. He likewise said that several people already volunteered to have a new body.
Although the surgeon is optimistic that his proposed procedure would work, other experts are skeptical.
"This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely," said Harry Goldsmith, from the University of California. "I don't believe it will ever work, there are too many problems with the procedure."