Sometime ago there had been a buzz about Dr. Sergio Canavero’s article on head transplantation. The reason I did not venture to write about it before is that the pseudo scientific reporting of the leading newspapers often do not include the link to the original article. This gives rise to a classic computational neuroscience problem of separating noise from the actual response. The solution, alas, is not simple averaging but separating the noise probability distribution from the signal probability distribution via a non-linearity. But I must not digress!
The first thing one notices in the article “HEAVEN: The head anastomosis venture Project outline for the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage (GEMINI)” is Dr. Canavero’s writing prowess. The article could very well have been for pleasure reading. He acknowledges the futuristic nature of his claim but argues some deadly scenario warrants this experimentation. To this sentiment I agree. If we can save children with anencephaly (child with no head) or patients with cancer spread only to the brain should we not take the risk? Should we ban internet because of some criminals that decide to hack? Before bio ethicists go berserk accusing this is akin to chopping people’s head off before they are dead, may be time has come to give it some unbiased thought.
While I am no expert in neuroanatomy, his article does not seem “scientifically unsound” as some reports claim. Given the fact that this procedure has been done in 1970s on monkeys (the monkey lived for 36 hours), trying to extend it to humans doesn’t sound ludicrous to me. He seeks to employ two major adjustment to the currently existing practice – make a clean cut to sever the spinal cord and use PEG (Polyethylene glycol- an inorganic polymer) to join it to the new spinal cord.
The major barrier to giving head transplantation serious consideration is perhaps the grotesque nature of the surgery. Nevertheless, if we look back to the ancient world this practice, albeit rare, wasn’t unheard of. Lord Ganesha of Indian mythology has the head of an elephant and is widely regarded as the first example of xeno-transplantation. The legend goes on to say that after the surgery, he was given a potion to drink which might easily have been anti-rejection medicine. Given that this legend hails from the land of Shushrutha, the father of surgery, it will be unwise to disregard it as baseless. Other cultures like the ancient Egyptians also had quite a few gods including anubis, horus and thot with human body and animal head.
It is human nature to deny radical experimentation but bold discoveries still happen. The impossible of today does indeed become the possible of tomorrow. However, it is to be seen if making it possible by 2016 is being overly optimistic on Dr. Canavero’s part.
The original article by Sergio Canavero can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3821155/
Some other resources consulted in this article are: