Head Transplant: Could This Irresponsible Procedure Really Take Place?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


May 22, 2015

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I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center.

Dr Sergio Canavero [at the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Turin, Italy] has made a recent announcement. He thinks it is time to attempt a head transplant. Literally, he would take a head from someone who is dying and put it on a body that has been declared brain dead, fuse them together, and give a person who requires it a new body.

What kinds of people might be considered for a head transplant? No, I'm not talking about politicians. It might be someone with a wasting disease, whose muscles are collapsing and who can't move or ambulate. Think about Lou Gehrig disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or other genetic diseases that cause muscle wasting. People have suggested that this might be an option for transgendered individuals. That is the kind of individual who might benefit from this type of procedure.

I happen to think this is all nonsense and completely unscientific, unattainable, and ridiculous. The scientist says he can do it. He says that he has some way to fuse the spinal cord, because that is the major obstacle to doing something like this. It is fusing the head to the body through the spinal cord—the main highway of nerve transmission.

If this individual knows how to do that, then he should not be doing head transplants. He should be helping all the people who have tragically severed their spinal cords and are paralyzed and can't walk. There are hundreds of such patients all over the world. We don't know how to fix that. We don't know how to help them, so if he has developed a way of regrowing that tissue, he ought to be directing his efforts there.

He says that this has been done in the past in animals. There were some attempts back in the 1910s by Russian scientists to transplant heads in dogs, and some monkey studies were reported out of Cleveland in the 1970s, but they are meaningless. We don't know whether they functioned. The animals that got them only lived a few days before they died. You would have to use such an enormous amount of immunosuppression to prevent the body from rejecting the head that the person would probably develop cancer or kidney failure, anyway. We simply don't know, aside from the challenge of reattaching the spinal cord, whether anybody could tolerate the amount of drugs you would have to take to make this work.

Another problem that he doesn't talk about that is worth mentioning is that it isn't as simple as screwing a head onto a new body. The nervous system sends signals into the brain, and the brain gets used to those signals. It is bathed in chemicals from the original body.

If you put a new head on the body, you are likely to create someone who is insane because the neural inputs—the chemistry—will be completely different. The brain would be completely confused. Not only would it be unethical because we don't have the science, it would be unethical to even think about this because of the significant risk of creating someone who would be insane, demented, or tortured.

There is a lot going on in transplant. We are barely able to figure out how to do a face transplant. We still have trouble making liver, kidney, heart, and lung transplants work without making the recipients very sick, but this is an experiment that we don't have to worry about. I don't think that head transplants are in our immediate future.

This is a public relations stunt, and a dangerous one, because it scares the public. They wonder, what kind of Frankenstein experiments are these scientists up to? Why should we trust doctors and scientists when they are going to do crazy things like this? It doesn't seem as though there are any controls. No one seems to be in a position to stop this. That is a high price to pay for having fun with public speculation, but it is irresponsible. I wouldn't worry about seeing a head on somebody else's body any time soon, but I would worry about not speaking out when scientists and doctors make irresponsible claims like this one.

I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center.


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