Don't lose your head: Doctor ready to perform first human head transplant

Lost your mind? You can get a new one. Literally. Actually, you can get more than a new mind — a doctor is now preparing to prepare the very first ever whole head transplant. No, DT hasn’t turned into a science fiction publication — this is the latest in scientific advancement.

It’s a plan that Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has been concocting for years, first introducing the notion to the public in 2013. The two-part procedure is composed of HEAVEN (head anastomosis venture) and Gemini (the subsequent spinal cord fusion), and was initially outlined in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Surgical Neurology International. Canavero presented at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons’s 39th annual conference last year, where his speech about the ambitious procedure served as the keynote.

The whole process involves 36 hours, 150 people (doctors, nurses, technicians, psychologists, and virtual reality engineers), and around $20 million. Valery Spiridonov, a 31-year-old Russian program manager suffering from the rare muscular atrophy disorder Werdnig-Hoffman disease, has already signed on to become the first patient.

So how will it work?

According to Canavero, there will be two surgical teams working at the same time. One will focus on Spiridonov, the living patient, while the other will focus on a donor’s body. The donor will be brain-dead and selected based on height, build, and immunotype. Both patients will be anesthetized and hooked up to breathing machines and electrodes to keep tabs on brain and heart activity. Then, Spiridonov will have his head nearly frozen — temporarily brain-dead himself.

At this point, attending physicians will drain the blood from his brain, and flush it with a surgery solution. Tubes will be looped around major arteries and veins to stop blood flow, and then later removed to allow for circulation once the new body is attached.

Then, the most important part of all — cutting both spinal cords. This will be done with a $200,000 diamond nanoblade, which comes from the University of Texas. Once Spiridonov’s head is no longer attached to his body, he’ll have to have a new body within one hour. All the necessary arteries and veins will be reconnected, and theoretically, the new blood flow will re-warm Spiridonov’s head. From there, the spinal cord segments will be fused in yet another novel procedure, and all severed muscles and skin will be sewn back together as well.

If all goes according to plan, Spiridonov could be up and walking three to six months after surgery.

Needless to say, skeptics abound for the procedure, but the patient says that he’s willing to risk death to escape his current condition. “If he is going to die,” Canavero says, “he is the only one who can decide.” The procedure is currently slated to take place late next year.


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