A controversial neurosurgeon who wants to carry out the first human head transplant has outlined plans to conduct ‘Frankenstein’ experiments to reanimate human corpses to test his technique.
Dr Sergio Canavero, director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, and his collaborators believe they may be able to conduct the first human head transplant next year.
They have outlined plans to test whether it is possible to reconnect the spinal cord of a head to another body with tests that will stimulate the nervous system in fresh human corpses with electrical pulses.
However, the Russian man who has volunteered to have the first transplant has also revealed that his girlfriend is opposed to him having the operation.
The aim of the surgery is to first cut the spinal cord and then repair it before using electrical or magnetic stimulation to ‘reanimate’ the nerves and even movement in the corpse.
In an article for the Surgical Neurology International, Dr Canavero and his colleague in South Korea and China drew parallels to the infamous story of Frankenstein, where electricity is used to reanimate the fictional monster.
He pointed to experiments conducted in the 1800s using the corpses of criminals who had been hung as proof such tests could be successful.
Dr Canavero and his colleagues said: ‘A fresh cadaver might act as a proxy for a live subject as long as a window of opportunity is respected (a few hours).
GIRLFRIEND OPPOSES PATIENT’S HEAD TRANSPLANT PLAN
The man who has volunteered to undergo the first human head transplant in the world has said his girlfriend does not want him to have the controversial surgery.
Valery Spiridonov suffers from a genetic disorder that means he is wheelchair bound and physically unable to take care of himself without constant assistance.
He has offered to be the first to undergo the controversial procedure proposed by Dr Sergio Canavero which would see him being decapitated and then his head being reattached to a donors body.
But Mr Spiridonov told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that his girlfriend is opposed to the operation.
He said: ‘She supports me in all what I do, but she doesn’t think that I need to change, she accepts me the way I am. She doesn’t think that I need the surgery.
‘My motivation personally is about improving my own life conditions and to go to the stage where I will be able to take care of myself, where I will be independent from other people.
‘I need people to help me everyday, even twice a day because I need someone to take me off my bed and put me in my wheelchair, so it makes my life pretty dependable on other people and if there will be a way to change this I believe it should be tried.’
Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian computer programmer suffering from a form of spinal muscular atrophy called Werdnig-Hoffmann, has volunteered to undergo the surgery.
However, the claims have been met with scepticism by many in the scientific community who warn the experiments in animals do not yet prove a head transplant will work in humans.
It is unclear exactly how completely the dog’s spinal cord was severed before it was treated and its injury is some way from having a total head transplant.
Writing in the journal Surgical Neurology International, Dr Canavero said the results of the experiments should dispel the hysteria around full head transplants ‘once and for all’.
He said: ‘While of course these results are in need of duplication, there can be no doubt that this new batch of data confirm that a spinal cord, once severed, can be refused with useful behavioral recovery.
‘Despite these exciting animal experiments, the proof of the pudding rests in human studies.’
He said that initial tests will be carried out using the bodies of brain dead organ donors where the spinal cord will be severed and treated to see if it can be repaired.
He explained how techniques, such as electrically stimulating movements through the spinal cord or with magnets applied to the brain, known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, will be used to test the connections.
If the spinal cord has reconnected, such stimulation should produce tiny electrical pulses in the nerves further beneath the point where the spinal cord was cut.
Dr Canavero said: ‘We believe this has a neuropathological basis.’
He first announced his plans to conduct head – or body – transplant in 2013 and he in 2015 he believed the challenges involved were surmountable.
Together with colleagues in South Korea, China and the US, he set up the head anastomosis venture, or HEAVEN, project to develop the techniques needed to carry out such an operation.
Earlier this year, Dr Canavero claimed scientists in China had performed a head transplant on a monkey where they connected up the blood supply between the head and the new body.
They did not, however, reconnect the spinal cord and the animal was unable to regain movement.
Dr XiaoPing Ren, a neurosurgeon in China who Dr Canavero claimed had conducted the work later said it could be some time before the first transplant in humans will be carried out.
Speaking last year he said that experiments in rats have only had a 30 per cent to 50 per cent survival rate.
He told Xinhuanet.com: ‘Some rats survived a few hours, the longest is one day.’
In a new set of papers published in the journal Surgical Neurology International and edited by Dr Canavero, researchers in South Korea and the US claim to have reconnected the spinal cords in mice and in a dog.
Dr C-Yoon Kim, a neurosurgeon at Konkuk University in Seoul who has been collaborating with Dr Canavero, severed the spinal cords of 16 mice.
They injected a chemical called polyethylene glycol (PEG) into the gap between the cut spinal cord in half of the mice.
After four weeks, five of the eight mice who received PEG regained some ability to move but three of the mice died. Those who did not receive PEG also died.
Similar tests using an enhanced version of PEG was given to five rats with severed spinal cords and the South Korean researchers showed electrical signals passed down it after treatment.
However, four of the rats were killed in a flood at the team’s laboratory and so they were not able to see if movement was restored.
HOW TO TRANSPLANT A HUMAN HEAD
Dr Sergio Canavero and his colleagues have set up the head anastomosis venture, or HEAVEN, project to develop the techniques needed to perform a head transplant.
A new body would need to be obtained from a transplant donor who has been declared brain dead.
Using an ultra-sharp blade, the head of both patient and donor would need to be severed a the same time to give a clean cut.
The patient’s head would then be attached to the donor body with the help of a solution known as polyethylene gylcol.
This would be injected between the two ends of the spinal cord to help them fuse together.
Muscles and the blood supply would be stitched together while the patient is put into a coma to allow them to heal.
During that time the patient would be given small electric shocks to stimulate their spinal cord and strengthen the connections between their head and new body.
As the patient is brought out of their medically-induced coma, it is hoped they would be able to move, feel their face, and even speak with the same voice.
Powerful immunosuppressant drugs would need to be prescribed, however, to stop the new body from being rejected.
It is also likely that the patient would require intensive psychological support.
In a final experiment the South Korean team tested the PEG solution in a dog after it’s spinal cord was almost completely severed. They claim 90 per cent of the cord had been severed.
While the dog was initially paralysed, three days later the team report it was able to move its limbs. By three weeks it could walk and wag its tail. There was no control in the experiments.
According to New Scientist, however, other scientists have raised serious concerns about the results.
Dr Jerry Silver, a neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, told the magazine: ‘These papers do not support moving forward in humans.
‘They claim they cut the cervical cord 90 per cent but there’s no evidence of that in the paper, just some crude pictures.’
Others said it could still at least eight years before a human head transplant could realistically be carried out.
Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, however, Dr Canavero said his team intended to conduct experiments on dead bodies before attempting ahead transplant with Valery Spiridonov.
He said the operation on a living patient would only go ahead when there was at least a 90 per cent chance of them surviving the procedure.
He said: ‘The first humans to receive this sort of head transplant will not be Valery, but we will just be performing the first on brain dead organ donors, so the first live head transplant will come about somewhere where we’ll be able to transfer the head of a brain dead organ donor onto the body of a decapitated, brain dead organ donor.
‘So only after extensive cadaveric rehearsals and this final proof of principle surgery on brain dead organ donors we will move on Valery.
‘Actually the list of patients is so long that we can’t actually begin to give you all the names including several patients from England.’
However, his plans to ‘reanimate’ corpses will doubtless require ethical approval and may pose a barrier to the experiments.