An Italian professor and medical expert announced today that surgeons in China had, for the first time ever, attached a human head to a deceased human body. Professor Sergio Canavero, who heads (pun intended) the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy made the stunning announcement at a press conference, and both laymen and medical professionals had very mixed reactions to the news.
It was an 18-hour surgery to give the corpse a new head, and this alone raises so many unanswered questions. Did the corpse come back to life, a la Frankenstein? When transplanting a head, don’t doctors have to screen for brain activity to make sure they’re not bringing a psychopath or mentally disturbed person back to life?
Those questions will have to wait for answers for quite a while, it appears. For now, the doctors involved in the surgery considered the gruesome transplant an enormous step forward for mankind, as did the professor, who issued a rather odd thought chain.
Speaking from Vienna this morning, Canavero declared that “… ‘For too long [Mother] nature has dictated her rules to us. We’re born, we grow, we age and we die. For millions of years, humans have evolved and 110 billion humans have died in the process. That’s genocide on a mass scale,” the professor insisted on what had to be one of the most unscientific statements ever made by one.
But Canavero believes the ability to get a new head on your shoulders will rejuvenate mankind: exactly how he did not elaborate.
“We have entered an age where we will take our destiny back in our hands,” he said.
Noting that no one had believed it was possible, even on a cadaver, Canavero said the complete report on the surgery would be released next week.
The practical applications of the ability to transfer human heads is still a bit unclear. It would seem almost to be of more benefit to the beheaded head than a headless body, as presumably, an entirely new personality would come with a new brain.
Doctors proved that by reconnecting the spine, nerves and blood vessels too, we assume, a brain… well, to be honest, we are a little lost on how this works ourselves. Whereas with organ donation, we all know that the donor is either deceased and no longer in need, or else can function with just one (as with kidneys), with human head transplants, who gets the benefit is a bit murkier, as one way or another, a head is going to be left on the table.
Clearly, two headless bodies must exist for this to work, and that’s the part where we get a bit creeped out. Apparently, in pre-human experiments on rats, doctors were able to keep a brain alive while they beheaded a rat and sewed it onto another, still living rat who did get to keep his own head. The recipient rat already had his own head and was just helping the severed head stick around – apparently, to our horror, still able to experience pain – for a full 36 hours before giving out.
But surely doctors aren’t proposing sticking a second head on humans who already have one, and the alternative is equally chilling. And it’s not just us befuddled lay people who feel that way, it seems.
A British National Health Services research scientist, Dr. James Fildes, who himself works in the transplant field in Manchester, England, described the entire deal as “morally wrong.”
“This endeavor appears to revolve around immortality,” Fildes noted, “but in each case, a body is needed for the transplant, and therefore a human needs to die as part of the process. Where does Canavero propose to get the donor body from if the goal is to tackle the laws of nature?”
And another British neuroscience professor, Dr. Jan Schnupp, agrees. “I find it inconceivable that ethics committees in any reputable research or clinical institutions would give a green light to living human head transplants in the foreseeable future,” the University of Oxford researcher said. “Indeed, attempting such a thing given the current state of the art would be nothing short of criminal.”
We have to admit, we don’t plan to fill out any donor cards for this one.
Perhaps the most startling comment from someone who understands this all much better than we do came from the president-elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, Dr. Hunt Batjer, who told CNN in an interview that he “… would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.
“As a neuroscientist, I would … like the general public to be reassured that neither I nor any of my colleagues think that beheading people for extremely long shot experiments is acceptable. It is not.”
We will sleep a bit better tonight knowing that, as we head off to bed.
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