Human Head Transplant: A Fate Worse Than Death?

Subject of experimental surgery faces unknown and unimaginable terrors.

File this one under “Bizarre but True”.

It sounds like the synopsis of a horror movie, but it’s not: Last week, a 30-year-old Russian man named Valery Spiridonov announced that he will become the subject of the first human head transplant ever performed, saying he volunteers to have his head removed and installed on another person’s body.

While the very prospect sounds alarming in the extreme, Spiridonov is uniquely motivated. He suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Werdnig-Hoffman muscle wasting disease, which causes the loss of motor neurons leading to atrophy. In severe cases, the muscles used for breathing and swallowing are effected.   There is currently no cure for Werdnig-Hoffman.

In a recent interview with the Daily Mail, Spiridonov spoke about his willingness to undergo the procedure, in spite of inherent fears: “Am I afraid? Yes of course A am. But it’s not just very scary, but also very interesting. You have to understand that I don’t have many choices… If I don’t try this chance, my fate will be very sad. With every year, my state is getting worse.”

Here’s where things get really creepy.


While the prospect of suffering with Werdnig-Hoffman certainly makes risking death for relief understandable, some doctors believe that Spiridonov potentially faces a fate worse than simply dying.

“I would not wish this on anyone,” said Dr. Hunt Batjer, president elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons. “I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.”


Christpher Hootan, a medical correspondent at The Independent, UK, has spoken with several expert and pin-pointed a problem that even the most perfectly performed head transplant procedure can not mitigate: “We have literally no idea what this will do to Spiridonov’s mind. There’s not telling what the transplant—and all the new connections and foreign chemicals that his head and brain will suddenly have to deal with—will do to Spiridonov’s psyche, but it could result in a hitherto never experienced level and quality of insanity.”

Am I the only one who got chills after reading that last sentence?

The Mad Scientist, I mean, Doctor who will de- & re-capitate Spiridonov is Italian Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group. Last February, Canavero described the process (which will take 36 hours and require a team of 150 doctors and nurses) in Surgical Neurology International:

After cooling the donor’s body and the recipient’s head, neck tissue is dissected, blood vessels are linked with tubes, and the spinal cords are cleanly severed. With the new head on the body, the ends of the spinal cords are fused together using a chemical that prompts fat in cell membranes to connect. Muscles and blood vessels will be sutured, and the patient will be kept comatose as electrodes stimulate the spinal cord.

Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator, or Dr. Sergio Canavero's profile pic?

Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator, or Dr. Sergio Canavero’s profile pic?

While previous experiments with head transplants in dogs and monkeys resulted in animals that only survived for a couple of days, Canavero is optimistic: “I think we are at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible.”

Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, however, thinks Canavero is “nuts.” Bodies of head transplant patients “would end up being overwhelmed with different pathways and chemistry than they are used to and they’d go crazy.”

Fiction's first Head Transplant recipient--and we know how this turned out!

Fiction’s first Head Transplant recipient–and we know how this turned out!

While the case of Valery Spiridonov and Dr. Sergio Canavero sounds like it’s straight out of the annals of The Twilight Zone, it merely scratches the surface of the potentially terrifying ethical and societal dilemmas head transplants pose. We are, after all, talking about an eventual “cure for death” aren’t we? Are we entering an age where heads will be kept alive in jars while donor bodies are harvested? Will we clone ourselves in order to “trade-in” older bodies for younger ones and, if so, does this amount to a form of human slavery?

The possibilities are vast and, while successful head transplants will no doubt lead to amazing medical advancements, the potentially terrifying unknowns are reason enough to take pause. Fortunately, Dr. Canavero is still at least 2 years from being able to actually perform Spiridonov’s operation; he needs to find and train his crew of 150 doctors and nurses (and will begin recruiting in Maryland this June).

What are your thoughts on head transplants and Dr. Canavero’s ambitions? A good idea or recipe for disaster? Sound off in the Comments section!


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