CREEPY CORNER: Head Transplant Edition

It's really all about knives and glue.
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Louise Hung
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It's really all about knives and glue.

I posted this on my Facebook page the other day

this one head transplant screenshot

As you can guess, most of my Facebook friends are used to my posting creepy gems from around the web, but there was a sense of repulsion or "WTF" in the comments for this post. 

"But…Where does the body come from? Is it a cadaver? Do you find another willing volunteer? Do you skulk around the streets like a creeper and knock a random person on the head and drag them to a Dexterish death? I don't get it!"

"Wait. What?"

"Have you heard this guy talk? I wouldn't let him touch me with a ten foot pole..."

Really, the the reaction that matched my own, and continues to match my own as I've hurtled down the rabbit hole on this subject, was our very own Alison Freer's:

"OH MY GOD"

I "OH MY GOD'ed" when I first read the above article. 

I "OH MY GOD'ed" when I watched the video of Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero AKA Spooky Steve Jobs, explaining the head transplantation procedure. 

I "OH MY GOD'ed" when I read about all the horrible things that could go wrong. 

This might be the best picture I've ever taken for xoJane. 

This might be the best picture I've ever taken for xoJane. 

For those of you who have not been "OH MY GODing" along with me, here are the basics of the Head anastomosis venture Project, or HEAVEN (yes, that's really what he's calling it):

Since 2013 Dr. Sergio Canavero has been talking about his "vision" for head transplantation. Spinal cord connection aside (THE the biggest hurdle in making transplantation successful), a doctor in 1970 did it with monkeys (the poor monkey was paralyzed, head and body rejected each other, and died) so of course next stop, PEOPLE!

Now Canavero is saying that he has come up with a way to make the transplantation feasible. Costing 13 million dollars, requiring approximately 36 hours of surgery, and needing a team of 15o doctors, Canavero claims that as early as 2017 he could give a donor body a shiny new head. Or really, if the brain is what makes a person who they are, the procedure would give a head a shiny new body. 

You see, Canavero has fancy glue and a really sharp knife. 

crocodile dundee knife pic

"THAT'S a knife." ("Crocodile Dundee" kids, get with the program)

As he explains in a NOT CREEPY AT ALL WAY in this video, if you can cut the spinal cord of donor body and donor head (?) really precisely with a REALLY sharp knife, you can put the banana back together again. I mean human. 

It's all about a clean cut. 

Just watch the video. The banana comes in around 4:12. 

Along with Canavero's super sharp knife, is the glue he intends to use, polyethylene glycol. This glue, claims Canavero, can fuse the spinal cord together and facilitate nerve regeneration. 

Combined with other techniques such as inducing hypothermic conditions in the brain and donor body during decapitation, putting the newly joined head and body in a medically induced coma upon coming out of surgery, and using electrical stimulation to heal the nerves, Canavero is confidant that head transplantation can be a reality. 

But who's volunteering?

Put your hands down, Creepy Corneristas, Russian computer programmer Valery Spiridonov has already offered to be "patient zero." 

Living with Werdnig-Hoffman disorder, "an incurable muscle atrophy disease," Spiridonov wrote Canavero an email, wanting to be a part of his work. 

Dear Doctor Sergio!

I am a 29 years old disabled man with a muscle atrophy. I was so excited to read from newspapers about your research on head transplantation. Please tell me – what resources do you need for a successful operation? Can I be usable to you? I am ready to take part in any experiments, if you need. 

sincerely, Val.

At 30 years-old, Spiridonov has lived beyond the 20 years of age, doctors predict for people living with Wednig-Hoffman disorder. When asked what made him want to submit to such a procedure, Spiridonov explained that he sees this as "the chance of a new body before he dies." 

Am I afraid? Yes of course I am,”...“But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting. You have to understand that I don’t really have many choices. If I don’t try this chance, my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.”

If all goes according to plan, Canavero says that after extensive physical therapy, Spiridonov will be able to walk after a year. 

Them's the basics. 

Honestly, Canavero reminds me of the "surgeon" who looked at my second broken foot and "strongly recommended" that I let him perform an operation that he "invented." I say "surgeon" because some quick Internet sleuthing revealed that he was NOT a surgeon, and had literally taken what amounted to a "surgery class." 

But back to Canavero. What does the rest of the medical community say? Seems to be a resounding, "NOPE."

Says Dr. Chad Gordon "professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery and neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins University" via Buzzfeed News:

"There’s no way he’s going to hook up somebody’s brain to someone’s spinal cord and have them be functional...On the conservative side, we’re about 100 years away from being able to figure this out...If he’s saying two, and he’s promising a living, breathing, talking, moving human being? He’s lying."

Dr. Christopher Winfree, "assistant professor of neurological surgery at Columbia University" also told Buzzfeed News, "Once you sever the spinal cord, there’s a series of things that prevent it from healing. A fancy glue is not going to fix that."

Among those series of things are are scar tissue and the fact that nerve cells are resistant to growth, "other proteins and enzymes will be inhibiting their growth as well."

Then of course, there are the more horrific aspects of HEAVEN. 

Spiridonov would have to be on anti-rejection drugs and immunosuppressants for the rest of his life. But that's no guarantee. There's still the strong chance (likelihood) that the donor body and Spiridonov's head could reject each other. (You can file that last sentence under, "Things I Never Thought I'd Seriously Write".) 

As many doctors have pointed out, you can't just make the nerves of one person's anatomy play well with another person's anatomy. The body could go haywire (hand transplants are unpredictable, what would a whole body do?), the brain could essentially overload, Graft-versus-host Disease could be taken to new and terrifying levels. 

What would that be like? Provided Spiridonov even survives the surgery, what sort of trauma and physical pain might he look forward to? It is incomprehensible. 

Of course, there's also the psychological ramifications. Ramifications that the medical community has no real way of predicting. As Christopher Hootan of The Independent put so chillinginly: "The problem is, fusing a head with a separate body (including spinal cord, jugular vein etc) could result in a hitherto never experienced level and quality of insanity." 

In the same article, Dr. Hunt Batjer, "president elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons," states, "I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death."

OH MY GOD. 

Look, I'm not a doctor. If you're reading Creepy Corner for my medical expertise, you've been misled. I only know what I've read, and what I can deduce. If there any real medical professionals out there, I'd LOVE for you to speak up.  

As many of you know, I don't like passing judgment on the people I write about in Creepy Corner, but I can't help but be deeply disturbed by what Canavero proposes. 

From what I understand, he wants so badly to transplant a head, that he's thrown aside all medical knowledge and wisdom, and dubbed himself "God." In everything I've read, the procedure seems more important than the person. 

And though Canavero claims that he is pursuing this procedure to help people like Spiridonov gain a higher quality of life in the future, nothing in his words or demeanor speak to this sort of spirit. 

I understand why Spiridonov wants to take the risk. I'm not saying all people living with such disabilities want head transplants, but in theory, his reasoning makes sense to me. 

And please don't mistake doubts and criticism of Canavero as negative judgment on Spiridonov. I don't know all the details, and I may not even understand all the details, but I can't help but wonder how much Spiridonov has been told.  

I mean really, I have a hard time believing that even Canavero himself understands all of what he's talking about. 

I'm probably making too much of this. The odds of a head transplant actually happening in the next couple years are miniscule. At this point in medical advancement, the idea is absurd. 

I suppose that's what makes the prospect so scary. 

What do you think? Is this all just the rantings of a lunatic? Do you know something about medicine I don't? Do you think a head transplant could be a positive advance that should be pursued?

Or is this the kind of "playing God" that is doomed from the start?