Doctor Performs Head Transplants On Mice, Says Monkeys Are Next

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A Chinese surgeon who has performed nearly a thousand head transplants on mice wants to test the procedure on monkeys. Dr. Xiaoping Ren hopes his research could one day be used on human patients, but critics have dismissed the study as “ridiculous.”

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), who followed Ren during the 10 hour surgery, reported that after the mouse received its new head, it was able to move and open its eyes, but died shortly after. Ren has been performing the procedure since 2013, testing different techniques to help the mice survive longer than their current record—one day. Ren told the WSJ that he hopes a monkey receiving the transplant could “live and breathe on its own, at least for a little while.”

Ren and his team connected the donor and recipient circulatory systems using tiny tubes to allow oxygenated blood to flow from the rodents' brains to their new bodies. The primate surgery would be far more complex, however, where researchers would be attempting to attach small amounts of the monkeys' spinal nerve fibers. According to Wired UK, this may not be the first time a monkey head transplant has been on the table. Robert J. White reportedly had his finger almost bitten off when he was able to successfully transplant one monkey’s head onto another’s body.

Despite the name, a head transplant should probably be described as a ‘body transplant’ as it’s the head receiving a new donor body. Some researchers, incuding Ren, suggest these transplant surgeries could revolutionize modern medicine as bodies damaged by disease or injury could be replaced, allowing the donors to live healthy and more fulfilling lives. But even if the procedure becomes technically feasible, whether or not patients would be able to overcome the psychological burden of living in someone else's body is a serious issue that must be considered. 

“We want to do this clinically, but we have to make an animal model with long-term survival first,” Ren told the WSJ. “Currently, I am not confident to say that I can do a human transplant.” 

For the time being, there’s probably no need to lose your head over this research, with bioethics professor Arthur Caplan, from New York University, telling the WSJ: “The whole idea is ridiculous.” Critics also question whether animals should be used in this type of research. It’s unlikely the procedure will be tested in the U.S. or U.K. anytime soon, which probably contributed to Ren’s decision to move his research from the University of Cincinnati in Ohio to China's Harbin Medical University.

There are a number of challenges Ren will have to overcome, such as keeping the brain oxygenated for long periods of time and preventing the immune system from rejecting the new head. Earlier this year, Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero announced his plans to complete the first human head transplant within two years, but many scientists remain skeptical of the likelihood of these procedures becoming successful or legal in the near future. 

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