I will fear no evil: the first head transplant on human
In 2008, doctor Sergio Canavero, an italian neurosurgeon based in Turin, IT, have awakened a 20 years old lady from a permanent post-traumatic vegetative state, by means of a bifocal extradural cortical electro-stimulation. Today, while Science still find it hard to explain consciousness and embodied cognition – the world-class neurosurgeon made a shock announcement: “I’m ready for the first head transplant on a man.” In the manuscript published on Surgical Neurology International, he reveals the details of this astonishing project, named HEAVEN. Including ethical questions.
TECHNICALLY POSSIBLE - HEAVEN/GEMINI is a project that draws scenarios worthy of an Heinlein’s story.
The head transplant in humans is technically possible. And in a couple of years could be a reality.
THE NEW CHALLENGE - now the new impressive and perplexing challenge: HEAVEN / GEMINI (Head Anastomosis Venture project with spinal linkage), is the ability to merge two different sections of the spinal cord, that of a body given with the residual limb, in the neck of the receiving patient. A head transplant, in fact is theoretically possible and now even feasible. According to the referees of Surgical Neurology International – the online magazine that published the work of Canavero – the project “opens up a whole new field for contemporary medicine.” Obstacles overcome says Dr. Canavero – “The technical challenges have been overcome by advancement in cell engineering,” he explains in an interview with an italian weekly magazine. “The reconnection of spinal cord is the ability to merge the extensions of nerves using substances that can reconstitute their integrity. In HEAVEN, the cephalosomatic linkage is made possible by a minimally traumatic cutting using an ultra-sharp blade. A minitrauma which is certainly not comparable to that which occurs – unfortunately – in paraplegics and quadriplegics, where the bone marrow damage is extensive, complex, with scars and deep lesions. In order to protect the brain structures, the surgical intervent is performed under deep hypothermia (15 C degrees)”.
CANDIDATES - potential candidates? “The range is vast in theory: the receiver must be a patient struggling with some severe neuromuscular degenerative disease. But even a quadriplegic may apply. While the donor, must be a person who has unfortunately lost his life for a head injury without substantial damages in other organs, or those who have suffered a fatal stroke (eg serious cerebral hemorrhage)”.
ETHICAL ISSUES – The project turns on an ethical debate of global proportions, because HEAVEN puts into practice the bases to lengthen human life. “The society should already start thinking about how to regulate this procedures,” reflects Canavero, “before a revolutionary intervention, designed to help very many really suffering, become a practice in the hands of unscrupulous surgeons.”
The story takes place about 2015 AD against a background of an overpopulated Earth with a violent, dysfunctional society. Elderly billionaire Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is being kept alive through medical support and decides to have his brain transplanted into a new body. He advertises an offer of a million dollars for the donation of a body from a brain-dead patient. Smith omits to place any restriction on the sex of the donor, so when his beautiful young female secretary, Eunice Branca, is murdered, her body is used. He changes his name to Joan Eunice Smith.
Eunice’s personality continues to co-inhabit the body and they can communicate. They agree never to reveal her continued being, fearing that they would be judged insane and locked up. Smith’s identity is unsuccessfully challenged by his descendants, who hope to inherit his fortune. Smith and Eunice decide to have a baby together and so she is artificially inseminated using Smith’s sperm from the sperm bank. Smith explores her new sexuality at length. She goes to visit Eunice’s widower, Joe Branca, to try and help reconcile him to what has happened. Smith marries her lawyer, Jake Salomon, and moves her household and friends onto a boat. Jake has a heart attack and dies but his personality joins Smith and Eunice in Smith’s head. She emigrates to the moon to find a better future for her child. Once there, her body starts to reject her transplanted brain. She dies during childbirth. from Robert A. Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil
WHAT IF? – This is another piece of scientific history that will certainly impact many (if not all) aspects of our individual existence; it especially makes us to reconsider our social basis: legal and moral rules. It raises questions of individuality, embodiment, and immortality.
So. Have you already begin to ask yourself about these? The time has finally come.
The original paper is available in OPEN ACCESS at: http://www.surgicalneurologyint.com/text.asp?2013/4/2/335/113444
Canavero, S. (2013). HEAVEN: The head anastomosis venture Project outline for the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage (GEMINI) Surgical Neurology International, 4 (2) DOI: 10.4103/2152-7806.113444