Sergio Canavero's plans to carry out the world's first head transplant surgery sounds more like a science-fiction novel each time it makes the news.
The media-savvy neurosurgeon has recently revealed that his team will use virtual reality (VR) to help the patient transition to their "new world" after the surgery.
Dr Canavero hopes to pull off this head transplant procedure by the end of 2017, in a project known as HEAVEN (Head Anastomosis Venture). His team aim to attach the severed head of a live man to the body of brain-dead donor during a 36-hour surgical operation that will involve the complex reconnection of a severed spinal cord and jugular vein.
Critics of the project (of which there are a fair few) say the procedure could cause unknowable amounts of emotional distress and deep psychological confusion to the patient. One doctor even said the patient could suffer a fate “worse than death”.
As a reply to this criticism, the HEAVEN project will turn to virtual reality to help the patient transition to his new full-bodied world, Canavero announced during a conference at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow on Friday.
The VR system has been developed by the healthcare tech company Inventum Bioengineering Technologies. Using a physical hoist to hold the patient upright, it will create an immersive experience to simulate the sensation of walking and the voluntary use of motor functions, as well as prepare the patient for the distress of seeing themself on someone else's body. The patient will be trained using the VR system for months before the operation.
"This virtual reality system prepares the patient in the best possible way for a new world that he will be facing with his new body," Canavero said. "A world in which he will be able to walk again."
Inventum Bioengineering Technologies
Canavero's team hope to pull off the groundbreaking experiment on Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian man with muscular atrophy.
Speaking about the use of VR, Spiridonov said: “Virtual reality simulations are extremely important as this kind of system allows [the patient] to get involved into action and learn fast and efficiently. As a computer scientist, I am extremely certain that it is an essential technology for the HEAVEN project."
Canavero also dropped another bombshell at the conference by saying he hopes to conduct the operation in the UK. As with much of the project, that claim is shrouded with skepticism and uncertainty. Nevertheless, the doctor is as confident as ever.
“Why? Because I had so much good feedback from Britain, from surgeons, that I do believe that it could get real traction if we push it hard here, so it is time for you here in Britain to start discussing all the ethical implications and if you are willing to see this happen here, because if the UK says no then it will be somewhere else," he added. "But in Europe the UK really looks like the most promising place."