Imagine waking up and looking down at yourself, only to find that you are no longer you. Your head is attached to someone else’s body. Sounds like a horror story, right? Well this is something that a Sergio Canavero, a surgeon from Italy, claims could be possible in just two years.
Dr Canavero hopes that head transplants, or body transplants, could extend the lives of those with struggling with terminal illnesses, such as cancer and diseases that cause degeneration of muscles and nerves. This could allow Stephen Hawking to walk again.
In 1970 a similar surgery was successfully carried out on a monkey. The monkey survived and was even able to see, hear and taste. However, this didn’t last long. The new body soon identified the monkey’s head as in intruder and rejected it. Sadly the monkey died a few days later. People who receive transplants are given drugs that repress the immune system, stopping it from destroying the new body part, but they don’t always work. A person can survive if their new kidney, or even new heart, gets rejected. But, If this happened to a head, it wouldn’t be possible to just remove the new body and replace it with a machine.
Let’s assume that the immune suppressants always worked. What would be the biggest problem? After the surgery, the monkey was paralysed. This was because its spinal cord wasn’t reconnected. If a person could not move after a head transplant the whole surgery would be pointless, so work is being done to correct this.
But what’s the catch here? It’s never been done before. The nerves in a spinal cord can’t regenerate once they’ve been cut. Canavero wants to use a growth-stimulating chemical called polyethylene glycol to join the neurones. However, this technique has had limited success and has only ever been used on rats.
But again let’s pretend that the surgery was a success and the person woke up from their coma a month later able to move, speak in their own voice and with feeling in their fingers. Would this be the end of their problems? Probably not.
When the world’s first and also successful hand transplant was carried out, the limb had to be removed soon after because of the severe side effects of the medication. The recipient of the new body would have to remain on these drugs for the rest of their life and put up with any difficulties that come with them. When the first penis transplant was done it also had to be removed, but this time it was because of “severe psychological problem of the recipient and his wife” just two weeks later.
There are many more cases like these. If people struggle with just one new addition to their body, would they be able to cope with a whole body that wasn’t theirs?
There are also ethics to consider. Even though this surgery may be possible in the future, would it be the right thing to do? Frankenstein would no longer be a fictional character but a twenty first century surgeon. Who would be the first person to have this surgery done? They would essentially become a human guinea pig.
So just because we can, does it mean we should?