Yes, You Can Transplant a Head
A bizarre experiment in the 1970s proved this in primates —now an Italian surgeon suggests that are humans next
In 2013, an unusual paper appeared in Surgical Neurology International, a peer-reviewed medical journal based in the United States. The piece had been written by a surgeon named Sergio Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, and it boasted an unusual title: HEAVEN, or the “head anastomosis [connection] venture.” It suggested a radical surgery protocol, with “two teams, working in concert, would make deep incisions around each patient’s neck, carefully separating all the anatomical structures to expose the carotid and vertebral arteries, jugular veins and spine.” Then, one patient’s head would be transplanted onto another patient’s body.
It sounds unreal. And to be fair, the TEDx talk Canavero gave not long after was flagged by the organization. It nonetheless earned him half a million views, as well as epithets; critics called him “delusional,” a “James Bond villain,” and of course “Dr. Frankenstein.” The 52-year-old Italian surgeon stepped onto the stage with a shaved head, turtleneck and jeans, like a surgical Steve Jobs. “All the experts know is wrong,” he announced. “Sit tight, I’m about to give you one hell of a ride.”
Canavero ranges from promises of spinal fusing to the thinly veiled suggestion that billionaires in Russia could live forever if they cloned enough bodies to swap heads with. He swaggers with unmistakable bravado, proudly asserts his authorship of a book on “female seduction,” doesn’t eat beef, practices jujitsu and likes to talk about his six-pack, (among other things). But he also successfully introduced cortical brain stimulation for Parkinson’s (a process by which motor nerves are magnetically stimulated deep in the brain), has written textbooks on dysfunction of the central nervous system, and has over 100 peer reviewed publications. And he’s convinced that head transplant will work.
Mostly because it’s already been done.
It happened in 1971, in a small Brain Research Lab in Cleveland, Ohio. A portly, balding neurosurgeon in black frame glasses (and smoking a pipe all the while) transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. And it lived. It woke in its new body, recognized the doctors, and tried to bite one of them. In fact, the very words Canavero uses to describe the surgery in his own paper come from one published by the lead surgeon, Robert White, and his team. There were diagrams, plans, protocol, and even film: this is how you take a head off. This is how you put it back on.
I wrote a book about White, his experiments, and the philosophical and ethical questions they raise. Where is the fuzzy line between life and death? If a body outlives its brain, we call it brain death — a forever coma — and we allow organs to be harvested. But what happens when the brain outlives the body? The monkey head lived on a host body for nine days… Which monkey was technically alive? Where in this strange composite of brain and body, mind and self, do “we” live? I titled it after White’s two nicknames in life: Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher. Like Canavero, he was sometimes called Frankenstein, too. (It happened to be one of White’s favorite books.)
Essentially, White wanted to save lives. Souls, at least, which he (as a Catholic) believed resided in the brain. But his patients would have been paralyzed from the incision down… It isn’t exactly a practical surgery. Canavero has other ideas.
To begin with, he intends to build his operating theatre complete with a crane, so that the head can be “floated” to the donor body, where stumps would be aligned, PEG employed, and electrical stimulus given to (supposedly) help establish communication across the severed spinal cord. This has not yet been proven effective, but even without it, re-attachment would be more labored than in White’s monkey surgeries: as all muscle tissues and nerves would have to be reknit together. White hadn’t bothered; it didn’t matter much without the spinal cord to direct nerve impulses. And even Canavero doesn’t expect the nerves and muscles to work again straight away. The body must be tethered to life support until signs of motor recovery appear.
Whose body are we talking about? For a time, Canavero had a willing patient. White had one, too. The clock ran out on Dr. White before he could perform the surgery — but it was Canavero’s patient who declined, in the end. Valery Spiridonov, of Russia, suffered from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, a genetic disorder that destroys muscle and kills the neurons that help the body move. He’d been single when first he volunteered, but had met and married his wife before the date was set. With so many reasons to live, just as he is, Spiridonov decided he wasn’t interested in experiments that might be merely “expensive euthanasia.” He didn’t have faith in the surgery. Or, perhaps, the surgeon.
Dr. White, the pioneer in head transplant, had insisted all along that every life was worth living, worth saving. Yet the lingering hope for a head transplant nevertheless contains a concurrent hope in permanence, even immortality. If parts could be replaced endlessly, if brains could be sustained infinitely, what would that mean? Canavero’s throw away comment about Russian billionaires is telling. Body transplants, if ever they arrive, are the province of privilege. An article appearing in the journal Futurism complained that “only men would be stupid enough to believe that bodies were transferrable. It is part of their privilege […] As though that body is an accessory, rather than an integral aspect of personhood […] As though their quirks and chemical detritus isn’t written on every crease of our mind.”
Entertaining the possibility of head transplant almost requires belief in Cartesian dualism, seeing the mind and body as entirely separate things — an ego driving a vehicle of flesh. But our bodies are not singular entities, but whole universes of microbes and bacteria working in concert with cellular activity; we may not be what we eat exactly, but the gut alone has been proven to influence the brain in surprising ways — from mood to pain response. What would a head transplant really accomplish? Would it rearrange, enhance, or obliterate the “self?” Would it rewrite the rules of death? Or would it become, like so many other technologies, just another way for the “haves” to have more?
Before Dr. White died, he wrote an article for Scientific American’s special issue Your Bionic Future: “I predict that what has always been the stuff of science fiction — the Frankenstein legend, in which an entire human being is constructed by sewing various body parts together — will become a clinical reality early in the 21st century.” Twenty years on, in March of 2019, Canavero (with his colleague Xiaoping Ren) published two articles claiming they’d fully cut the spinal cords of monkeys and dogs, then put them back together again. The animals, they claimed, could walk after the surgery. The story broke in USA Today, and a follow up exchange with Xiaoping Ren suggested that the findings were proof that human trials should be initiated.
Despite all the setbacks, all the philosophical dilemmas and problematic ethics, White’s words might still prove prophetic — Partly due to the very protocols he created in 1971, and partly to scientific curiosity’s way of getting to the can ahead of the should. Perhaps that first surgery was a Pandora’s box. Once open, difficult to close. And the quest to transplant the first human head continues on.