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There Will Probably Never Be a Human Head Transplant

Surgeon Promising Head Transplants By 2017 Speaks In GlasgowSurgeon Promising Head Transplants By 2017 Speaks In Glasgow
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero gives a press conference on November 18, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. The neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero is set to announce more details about his controversial head transplant surgery at a medical conference in Glasgow tomorrow. The Doctor wishes to carry out the operation in 2017 and believes it could lead to people who have been paralysed from the neck down to being able to walk again.Jeff J Mitchell — Getty Images

The Internet was abuzz on Friday with news that famed—and controversial—Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero and partner Dr. Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University in China had performed the world’s first successful human head transplant (albeit with the major caveat that it was done on a corpse, raising comparisons to Dr. Frankenstein and his monster). Canavero claims the procedure was a success and a sign that full-on, presumably live head transplant surgeries are “imminent,” with the potential to help people who suffer from diseases which have caused their bodies to waste away.

But Canavero and Ren have prompted plenty of skepticism over the years from critics challenging both the scientific feasibility and ethical implications of head transplants, with some prominent doctors rejecting the notion that such a procedure is even possible. Canavero and Ren have played up reported successes in performing mice, monkey, and even rat head transplant operations.

There are, as you might imagine, a number of massive obstacles to successfully completing a head transplant surgery. Not only would head and neck tissue, nerve cells, and spinal cords have to be grafted together to create functional units; the patient going through such an extensive procedure would have to stay alive for long enough for it to work and then have to hope that his or her new body doesn’t reject the head of a biological stranger.

Considering that even groundbreaking, clinically proven biological re-engineering—like new genetic technologies which involve manipulating blood cancer patients’ immune cells into becoming cancer killers before re-inserting them into the body—can cause serious, toxic side effects, it’s an open question what the long-term effects of an entirely new head and brain would have on a body (or vic versa); such interactions would be highly unpredictable.

And as neuroscience Dr. Dean Burnett points out in a scathing op-ed, Canavero’s outsized claims about past successes may not exactly align with the realities of his accomplishments. For instance, Burnett notes, the monkey head transplant procedure didn’t result in a being with actual consciousness.

There have, however, been other kinds of recent milestones in the transplant space, including one of the most extensive face transplants ever done and the prospect of human organ donations from genetically modified pigs.