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Now Head Transplants? Onward and Upward with Transhumanism

Michael Egnor


A cover story for New Scientist reports, "First human head transplant could happen in two years." We read:

It’s heady stuff. The world’s first attempt to transplant a human head will be launched this year at a surgical conference in the US. The move is a call to arms to get interested parties together to work towards the surgery.

The idea was first proposed in 2013 by Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy. He wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose muscles and nerves have degenerated or whose organs are riddled with cancer. Now he claims the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body’s immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017.

Canavero plans to announce the project at the annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland, in June. Is society ready for such momentous surgery? And does the science even stand up?

This is nuts.

It’s unclear what the indication for the surgery would be, and cutting off a person’s head and grafting it onto a body would create a quadriplegic. I know of no medical condition, even terminal conditions, in which the deliberate imposition of quadriplegia on a person would be acceptable. For example, if a patient has a malignant cervical spinal cord tumor that can’t be selectively removed, the condition could be treated with removal of the entire spinal cord, but that is never done, because it is generally agreed that making someone completely paralyzed deliberately is never medically indicated, even if ostensibly to save life.

The actual technical aspects of attaching a head to a body are enormous, given the major arteries (four) and veins (two or more) that would have to be grafted together, and the fact that the brain can survive without circulation only for several minutes. Cooling of the brain would extend survival up to thirty minutes or so, but it is doubtful if adequate circulation could be accomplished by then.

And we are nowhere near able to reconnect the spinal cord.

This kind of thing reduces medical practice to a freak show. Again, crazy.

The technical aspects of transplants — including head/body transplants, can be explored in the lab using animals, and perhaps some good may come of it. There is interesting science and surgical technique involved that may have applications in other ways, such as the reconstruction of arteries, cerebral cooling, etc.

But to subject humans to this kind of thing now is bizarre and should never be permitted.

It coincides, you will understand, with the transhumanism debate, and frankly has shades of Mengele, too. I guess attention-seeking doctors shouldn’t be a surprise — the medical profession has more than its share of nuts and monsters. Medicine has a real dark side (e.g., eugenics) and we shouldn’t forget that the medical profession in Germany did Hitler’s bidding with nary a whimper of protest and in fact was quite enthusiastic. Doctors in the Soviet Union, especially psychiatrists, were often eager helpers of the totalitarian system.

None of this is routinely taught in medical schools. When I lecture on medical ethics, I ask students how many know what eugenics is or what Soviet psychiatric hospitals were used for or what the Tuskegee Study was, and fewer than half raise their hands.

What is distressing is the prospect that this head-transplant guy could be taken seriously, and that medical ethics is falling even further into the ditch.

Image: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, by Universal Studios (Dr. Macro) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



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