April 20, 2024

Cephalosomatic anastomosis forges ahead

A flamboyant Italian neurosurgeon claims that head transplants are around the corner

Ren Xiaoping and Sergio Canavero

Head transplantation is back in the news again. Controversial Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has claimed at a press conference in Vienna that a team from Harbin Medical University led by Dr Ren Xiaoping has carried out the world's first head transplant (aka Cephalosomatic anastomosis) experiment.

During an 18-hour operation, the surgeons transplanted a head onto a corpse. Dr Canavero says that the Chinese team would soon use this experience to move to a living human paralysed from the neck down.

The announcement was greeted with great scepticism by other scientists. “If someone’s making grand scientific claims but hasn’t provided robust evidence for them, yet they have done a TED talk, alarm bells should be ringing,” wrote Dean Burnett in The Guardian.

A debate was carried on in a special section in the latest issue of AJOB Neuroscience. Bioethicists queued up to attack the plans of Canavero and Ren as unfeasible and unethical. Two bioethicists were so exasperated by the attention paid to the overhyped and under-documented experiment that they asked: “why are we still talking about this?” Paul Root Wolfe wrote that while a “head transplant” was theoretically defensible, “attempts of Ren and Canavero to rush this primitive technology to a first-in-human trial is ethically indefensible and irresponsible.”

But more interesting is Canavero and Ren’s defence of their project, which they call – provocatively — HEAVEN. They argue strongly that it is feasible and they point out three promising uses for it: life extension, gender reassignment, and cosmetic body swaps.

They hint that they have received many emails from desperate transsexuals who are interested in head transplants. “Imagine the parents of the brain dead body donor who are racked with sorrow and despair for their loss but are told that once the new being will start reproducing, his or her offspring will actually be the donor's parents’ descendants!”

The two neurosurgeons are defiant: “Yes, we forced the debate on the academe. But the future of hopeless people is in the balance. We would have dared no less.”

They also dismiss bioethics and bioethicists: “bioethics is mere opinion, more or less (dis)informed, at times with a heavy political streak… that hinges on supposed ‘authorities’ as ‘polestars’ of the present debate.”

And rather than modifying their ambitions in the face of nearly unanimous criticism, they reveal that Canavero has even more daring plans. He is making plans for brain transplantation. This project’s name is …. BRAVE. 

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