An Italian neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, announced last year that he is ready to perform the most complex (and controversial) surgery we've seen so far - a human head transplant. That decision provoked very different opinions, both in scientific circles and among regular citizens. There are many obstacles, from technical and scientific to ethical and the majority believes it has no chance of being successful. But let's think for a moment about what can happen if it works.
Encouraged by successful head transplant on a monkey, performed by Chinese scientists, Sergio Canavero believes that he is ready to take those methods a step further.
Eternal Life and Eternal Glory
It seems that Dr. Canavero is not driven only by purely scientific impulses and the question of eternal life but his wish for his own eternal glory. If the operation succeeds, he will see himself among the greatest - like the Russian and American cosmonauts, the first people to fly and land in space.
Canavero has been compared to Dr. Frankenstein, his goal tends to change everything we know (or don't know) about human life. He claims: "The world will never be the same again."
Who Is the Volunteer?
Valery Spiridonov is a 31-year-old Russian man who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a muscle atrophy. He is also a computer engineer and doesn't consider the surgery more unethical than a kidney surgery because, at some moment in history, the kidney surgery was observed the same way.
His View on the Operation
Valery says: "First of all, I am a scientist, I am an engineer, and I am keen to persuade people — medical professionals — that such operation is necessary. I am not going crazy here and rushing to cut off my head, believe me."
Valery Spiridonov with His Mother
His health condition is becoming worse: "I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease. I can hardly control my body now. I need help every day, every minute."
Canavero and a team of surgeons will try to attach Vasiliy's head to the body of a brain-dead male. Vasily's head will be frozen, without blood. Canavero will use a diamond nanoblade for this procedure, which is extremely precise and thin. Then he will try to connect Vasily's head to a healthy body.
The Main Obstacle
The hardest part of the operation and, many scientists think, the reason it is most likely not to succeed is the connection to the spinal cord. No one succeeded at that, not even Chinese scientists who performed a head transplant on a monkey.
Expectations from Experts
Simon Key, the leader of a team who transplanted a hand for the first time in the UK, in 2013, said: "There is simply no way for the foreseeable future of repairing the spinal cord at the neck."
Canavero's "Solutions" for Connecting the Spinal Cord
Canavero claims that in order to make the connection between the brain and the body work, he only has to connect ten to twenty percent of the nerves to the spinal cord. He will also use a "glue" - inorganic polymer glue - to connect veins and arteries. He believes this will work. Vasily will be in a coma for one month, as his healing will be faster that way. After that, Dr. Sergio Canavero expects a normal recovery, talking, walking, eating. The recovery may last from 3 to 6 months.
What Happens if It Really Works?
The operation costs 20 million dollars, and when asked what if one day, old billionaires wished to live forever and just wanted to change their bodies, Canavero answered that everyone could do with their money what they wish and if someone can't embrace the idea of living forever - it's not their problem.
What Scientists Said
Many scientists raised their voices against this decision, for various reasons. Professor Richard Ashcroft defined it: "The proposal raises serious issues around personal identity, both for the person whose head is being transplanted and for the relatives of the dead person whose body is used. The new body would look no different to how it did in its previous ‘life’. We have grown accustomed to the idea that the brain is the center of the person. But it is not so simple. Changes in the body change the way your brain works. The psychological adjustment would be enormously difficult coming to terms with that."
That Opens Many Questions
Now imagine that this really works and what that would mean not only for our relation to life and death but also for social relations. Would "poor people" (those who don't have money to pay for the operation) be referred to as "mortal people"? How would so many body donors be found? Would that include blackmail, force, selling a body to support a family? It does sound like a nightmare from movies, but would it really be impossible if the operation like this becomes a reality?
Similar Dilemmas in the Past
Faced with a similar dilemma in 1987, Chet Fleming summed it up nicely: "Is it going to be nice guys like Einstein, or guys like Hitler and Stalin? Who would decide?"
In the meanwhile, we certainly wish all the best to Vasily Spiridonov.