Head transplant surgeon claims human brain transplants ‘technically feasible’
SUMMARY breaks down fascinating scientific research, future technology, new discoveries and major breakthroughs.
The human brain is an amazing piece of biological machinery responsible for everything from dreaming Shakespeare’s sonnets to muscle coordination when scoring the winning goal at the World Cup. Yet even if our brains remain vibrant into old age, our bodies often do not. What if we replace them?
This is the idea of the controversial neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero, who claims in recent article that it might be “technically feasible” to prevent aging simply by removing one’s brain and placing it in a younger, more agile body. The article entitled “Human Whole Brain Transplantation: Technically Feasible” was published in Surgical Neurology International (SNI), a peer-reviewed journal in which Canavero serves as editor.
If this procedure rings a bell, it may be because Canavero floated a similar idea in 2015. who proposed full head transplant. The claim was bombastic, highly controversial, and when he later said he had found a volunteer to undergo the procedure, it became international news. It became such a sensation that part a Metal Gear Solid–related conspiracy theory. Many doctors have ignored the procedure because it is not based on current science, and to date has not been completed on a living human subject.
Canavero told Motherboard in an email that the head transplant “works” and that his previous work was just a stepping stone to the brain transplant.
“Human head transplantation was an intermediate step towards brain transplantation. Since the latter is considered impossible, I decided to focus on HT [head transplant], which is far simpler,” Canavero said. “However, while I can tell you that HT works, unfortunately it does not rejuvenate the aging tissues of the head, including the eyes. BT [Brain transplant] is the only option.”
Canavero’s head transplant claims have been difficult to verify. In 2017, SNI published a paper by Canavero and Chinese colleague Xiaoping Ren—who is also on SNI’s editorial board—reporting a head transplant trial with human corpses. A living volunteer, a Russian with genetic degenerative muscle atrophy, pulled out planned procedure in 2019. Also that year, SNI published the work of Canavero and Reno claiming to report successful spinal cord repair in animals.
Canavero told Motherboard he is not free to “talk about the HT project that took place in China, except to say that it is working”.
In his latest paper—which he and Ren edited—Canavero describes how to theoretically remove a person’s brain to place it in the skull of either a clone or a donated and brain-dead “immunoconditioned” body. In addition to describing a “robotic spatula with retractable teeth” that would pluck brains from their skulls, Canavero also offers possible solutions to several open questions about brain transplants, including methods of rewiring nerves and blood vessels.
“The unavailability of technologies that can successfully rejuvenate the aging body suggests that it is time to explore other options,” the paper said. “Contrary to popular belief, full BT is achievable, at least in theory. Of course, further large-scale cadaveric trials, followed by tests on brain-dead organ donors (as has recently been done with kidney xenotransplantation), will be necessary. New surgical tools will have to be developed. With the right funding, a long-held dream could finally come true.”
The ultimate goal of such a procedure would be to extend the number of years a person can enjoy life in an “intact body,” Canavero writes in his paper. This reasoning is not unlike that used by CRISPR advocates who propose using the technology on embryos to cut out unwanted genetics that can lead to physical or mental disabilities — a goal that some experts have labeled as a revival of eugenics.
Problematic or not, there is a great deal of interest in extending human life and an entire branch of science and pseudoscience devoted to “transhumanism” and life extension, including among the Silicon Valley elite. These methods include everything from ingesting certain substances to transfusions of “young blood”, cryogenesis and attempts to recreate humans as immortal artificial intelligence. So far, these attempts have not involved transplanting someone’s brain into their clone.
There are still big questions about whether what Canavero is proposing will ever actually work in a living human being (especially since part of the solution depends on the development of human clones), but his claims are sure to continue to pique the interest—and horror—of the public.