“Are human head transplants coming soon?” CNN wondered back in 2015. This is an extremely strange question to attempt to answer.
Apart from the fact that it’s now 2017 and such an operation clearly isn’t available at your local hospital, Sergio Canavero – the neuroscientist who first announced that he was going to give it a go – has been widely denounced by his contemporaries via a plethora of derogatory phrases. Nevertheless, with the help of a brand new study, he claims that he’s one step away from making it a reality.
The concept is simple. Have you been in a terrible accident recently that’s left you paralyzed from the neck down? Are you suffering from a debilitating and incurable genetic condition that will one day leave you unable to walk or even breathe? No problem – just switch out your body for another one via a head transplant.
That’s Canavero’s idea – one cleverly given the name of “Gemini Protocol” – and it seems somewhat ambitious, to say the least. At present, humanity is unable to fully repair a spinal cord to allow a quadriplegic to walk again, but a new paper by Canavero in the journal CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics claims to have achieved that feat – at least for a while – in rats.
A surgical team led by Xiaoping Ren of China’s Harbin Medical University severed the spinal cords of 15 rats, then attempted to save nine of them – leaving the rest as control subjects. Using polyethylene glycol, a compound that can be used in both industrial processes and medicine, they attempted to fix the broken connections, while also treating the rats for excessive bleeding.
Canavero talking at a TEDx event back in 2015. TEDx Talks via YouTube
Apart from one of them, the rats survived for at least 30 days post-op, were able to recover basic motor functionality, and eventually managed to walk. Two of them turned into a state that was described as “basically normal”.
“We show for the first time in an adequately powered study that the paralysis attendant to a complete transection of the spinal cord can be reversed,” the team write in their study.
They do note, however, that the severance of the spinal cord has to be quite clean in order to ensure minimal damage is done. Unfortunately, when it comes to real life, injuries like this are rarely so precise, and that’s before you get on to the fact that the human spine is far more complex than a rat’s.