SCIENCE

Head Transplants Are Coming Soon, At Least If This Doctor Gets His Way

02/27/2015 01:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 27, 2015

Things didn't go so great for Victor Frankenstein or his monster, but don't tell that to Sergio Canavero.

The Italian doctor believes that it's now possible to slice the head of off one person, stitch it to the decapitated body of another, and then reanimate the two-human mash-up. What's more, he says the first head transplant operation could come in two years, New Scientist reported.

The goal of such an audacious operation would be to extend the lives of people whose bodies were too diseased or injured to keep the head alive. As Canavero told The Huffington Post in an email, "Go to any neurology ward, ask to see someone with muscle-wasting disorders, and the answer [as to why the surgery makes sense] will be crystal clear."

That sounds simple enough, if perhaps a bit ghoulish. But not everyone is convinced that head transplantation is medically feasible or ethically sound. And then there's the high cost of the head-swapping surgery--Canavero's best guess is $13 million a pop.

Canavero, of Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, first proposed the idea for head transplantation in 2013. Now, in a new paper published Feb. 3, 2015 in the journal Surgical Neurological International, he outlines the surgical techniques that he believes will move head transplants from the realm of science fiction to medical fact.

These range from cooling the head and donor body to prevent cell death to using a super-sharp blade to cut the spinal cords very cleanly so that the nerve fibers are better able to fuse. Following the surgery, the patient would be kept in a coma for weeks in order to prevent movement that might interfere with healing.

"The greatest technical hurdle to such endeavor is of course the reconnection of the donor's and recipient's spinal cords," Dr. Canavero wrote in 2013. "It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage."

If Canavero sounds confident about head transplants, other medical experts think the good doctor is headed in the wrong direction.

"This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely," Dr. Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, Davis, told New Scientist. "I don't believe it will ever work, there are too many problems with the procedure."

Dr. Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, offered a similarly blunt assessment.

"To move a head on to someone else's body requires the rewiring of the spinal cord," Caplan wrote in an article for Forbes. "We don't know how to do that. If we did there would be far fewer spinal cord injuries. Nor, despite Canavero's assertions to the contrary, is medicine anywhere close to knowing how to use stem cells or growth factors to make this happen."

But Canavero is counting on bringing others into the fold, telling New Scientist that "before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you."

Followers may be one thing Canavero can count on. He told the magazine that several people had already expressed interest in a new body.

No word yet as to how many people have expressed interest in a new head.

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