One way to track advancement by listing the growing of things that pass from the realm of the merely hypothetical into the realm of the possible. That list may soon include head and brain transplants.
Earlier this year Italian neuroscientist Sergio Canavero shocked the world when he announced he would perform the world’s first human head transplant. This week Canavero announced the procedure is scheduled for December 2017, and he has recruited a head surgeon (pun intended) to lead the controversial procedure. This operation may sound like something out of a horror movie, but one man is hoping it will improve his quality of life.
A 30-year-old Russian man, Valery Spiridonov, volunteered for the procedure in the hope of living a more normal life. The computer scientist suffers from a rare motor neuron disease known as Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease. The disease causes motor neurons – the nerve cells responsible for sending signals from the central nervous system to your muscles – to deteriorate, which leads to muscle atrophy and in severe cases, difficulty swallowing and breathing. Currently there is no treatment for this disease.
As with any surgery, this procedure has many risks and uncertainties. Will the doctors be able to reconnect the spinal cord? Will the head reject the new body? While advances in medicine reduce the risk of rejection, the surgery is not a guaranteed success as no doctor has ever successfully reconnected a spinal cord. Spiridonov is well aware of the risks and is determined to go through with the procedure.
Canavero will be teaming up with Xiaoping Ren, a neurosurgeon from China’s Harbin Medical University. Ren is no stranger to head transplants as he has performed the procedure on 1,000 different mice. Following a 10-hour procedure, the mice were able to breathe, drink, and even see. Unfortunately, none of the mice survived for longer than a few minutes.
Ren has been operating on mice for a only few years; however, the first successful head transplant actually occurred nearly 50 years ago. In 1970 Dr Robert White, a surgeon at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, successfully transferred a rhesus monkey head to a new body. Following the procedure, the monkey survived on life support for a total of nine days before the head ultimately rejected the new body. As the spinal cord could not be reconnected the monkey body was paralyzed below the transplanted head.
The duo will spend the next two years prepping for the grueling 36-hour surgery. After cleanly severing the spinal cord – arguably the most important part of the procedure – the head will be transferred to the donor body. Then comes the really tricky part: reconnecting the spinal cord. Canavero’s technique will be to use polyethylene glycol – a compound known for its ability to fuse fatty cell membranes. Ren is expected to test Canavero’s technique in mice and monkeys later this year.
Many medical professionals do not embrace this procedure, describing it as outlandish and impossible. While surviving such a complicated and intricate surgery is highly unlikely, it could help restore independence for the severely disabled. And some people, like Spiridonov, feel it’s worth the risk.
A successful head or brain transplant will raise many interesting questions. Suppose that two living donors swap heads. How do we determine the legal identity of the individuals? Does it follow the head, the rest of the body, or something that is not necessarily located in either one (e.g., the soul)? How does the procedure affect biological and legal relationships? How does it affect marriage, inheritance, ownership, and commercial contracts? How does it affect personal responsibilities owed by one donor but not the other? What about when one donor owes debts or has been convicted of a crime? What if one donor is female, free and Muslim; and the other is male, a slave, or a non-Muslim?
These questions lay the groundwork for pondering the circumstances the procedure is lawful according to the Sacred Law, and the legal consequences of both lawful and unlawful procedures.