Human head transplant is 'bad science,' says neurologist who just may have a point

Medical advances now make head transplants possible, new paper suggests

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Image credit: Flickr/PETERME


We'll get to the greatest understatement ever in medical journalism in a moment, but first: An Italian neuroscientist argues in a new paper that it now may be possible to successfully transplant a human head to another (human) body.

Dr. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group makes his case in a paper published on the Internet-only journal Surgical Neurology International.

"In 1970, Robert White and his colleagues successfully transplanted the head of a rhesus monkey on the body of another one, whose head had simultaneously been removed. The monkey lived 8 days and was, by all measures, normal, having suffered no complications," Canavero writes. "However, the technology did not exist for reconnecting the spinal cord, and this line of research was no longer pursued."

But, he adds, "It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage."

As it happens, another neurologist, Dr. Jerry Silver, was in the room with Dr. White in 1970 when the monkey's head was transplanted. He has a different memory of the experience, CBS News reports:

"I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. The head will stay alive, but not very long," the Case Western Reserve University neurologist told CBSNews.com. When doctors attempted to feed the re-connected head, the food fell to the floor. "It was just awful. I don't think it should ever be done again."

Here's the tremendous understatement in the CBS News article: "When performed on animals, head transplants are hardly perfect: they leave the animals paralyzed below the point of transplant, as Silver witnessed in 1970."

Hardly perfect, indeed!

Silver says the notion of connecting the donor's and recipient's spinal cords is "a complete fantasy." Not only that, he tells CBS News, "Just to do the experiments is unethical. This is bad science, this should never happen."

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