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Head Transplants Finally Possible, Argues Italian Scientist in New Paper

Jul 02, 2013 07:28 PM EDT
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Head transplants are logistically possible, Dr. Sergio Canavero of the University of Turin argues in a study published in the journal Surgical Neurology International.

For decades now, successful head transplants have been carried out in animals; however, the problem with these transplants has always been that scientists were unable to connect the spinal cords in the heads to the donor bodies, leaving the creatures paralyzed below the point of transplant.

However, Canavero says, recent advances in re-connecting spinal cords that are surgically severed has opened up the door to full human head transplants.

The Italian scientist's procedure is based on the 1970 transplant of a rhesus monkey head onto the body of another. The monkey with the new body survived for several days after the surgery, though it ultimately died because its spinal cords were never connected.

The plan includes cooling the subject's head and spine to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, using "clean cuts" to sever the two spinal cords, draining the blood from the transplanted head and then fusing the two spinal cords together with an inorganic polymer "glue."

The heads, he writes, must be cut at exactly the same time and in the same operating room. Surgeons would then have one hour to connect the head to the donor body, which would need to be cooled and kept in a state of induced cardiac arrest.

Once the body and head are reconnected, the heart of the donor body can be re-started and surgeons can proceed to reconnect other vital systems, including the spinal cord.

As far as ensuring that all nerve fibers are wired up correctly, Canavero admits to a high level of difficulty, but points out that even a few correct connections would allow for "some voluntary control of locomotion."

Despite recent strides in surgical procedures, such as full face transplants, however, connection of a spinal cord from the head of one creature to the body of another has never been attempted in animals, though it's true that, just this week, scientists at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic oversaw a study in which rats regained some bladder control after surgery to transplant nerve cells into the spinal cord.

Should Canavero be prove right, either now or further down the road, the implications for individuals suffering from paralysis or muscular dystrophy would be tremendous - as would be the bioethics surrounding the procedure.

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