Sergio Canavero wants to transplant a head, and he has a volunteer. Canavero thinks he can carry out this operation, although he has no successes in preliminary animal testing, and just wants to jump right in with a human with a debilitating disease.
Do not trust this guy. He makes a number of claims here that are transparently false, and glibly glides past major problems.
I am not at all fond of people who misrepresent the field. He claims that the common dogma is that motor activity is driven entirely by the brain, and that the spinal cord is a ‘slave’ to higher levels…and that this is false, enabling his operation. Neuroscientists have used the decerebrate cat model since the 1950s; this is not novel. It is misleading to suggest that cutting the spinal cord is OK because spinal motoneurons can take over the job.
The secret to his success, he claims, is that he will cut the spinal cord with a very sharp knife, which is less damaging than traumatic spinal cord injury. There is a grain of truth to that, but he is minimizing the damage that will be done. Slice through long fibers, and you’ve still destroyed long distance connections. He doesn’t say anything about scarring; apparently, polyethylene glycol is magic and will allow the cut ends to fuse neatly.
He harps on the fact that you can get some restoration of function if you can only get “10 to 20 percent” of the fibers in the motor pathway restored. Can he even do that? Evidence not shown. Is that really adequate? You could easily argue that it’s better than 0%…but your patient won’t be dancing afterwards.
While pretending that getting a small percentage of the motor fibers reconnected is sufficient (while not showing that he can even do that), he completely ignores the importance of sensory reconnection. Even in his best fantasy, you end up with a head grafted onto a numb body with no proprioception, controlled by a few restored connections that activate motor programs in the spinal cord. Now that’s a creepy nightmare.
What about the autonomic nervous system? Does that even count to this guy with a knife and a mad glitter in his eye?
His prospective patient is a doomed young man with Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a terrible heritable degenerative disease that causes progressive cell death in populations of motoneurons in the spinal cord and brainstem (exactly how high up is Canavero planning to cut?). It’s a generally terrible disease, with its victims having normal intelligence and awareness, but losing control of their body starting at a very young age — I cannot fault the volunteer for hoping for rescue from his condition.
But I can fault Canavero for exploiting him and lying to him. This procedure will not work. If it was a good procedure, show me a dog that has undergone it, walking across the stage with a transplanted body. Try it with monkeys first. But he can’t: the result would be, at best, a shambling horror, an animal driven mad with pain and terror, crippled and whimpering, and a poor advertisement for his experiment. And most likely what he’d have is a collection of corpses that suffered briefly before expiring.
I can also fault the media for promoting this charlatan. TEDx should be ashamed. At least most of the print media are treating this as a circus freakshow.
I don’t think this operation will occur, fortunately. Canavero claims to need over $7 million to cover the costs, and a team of 150 doctors and nurses to carry out an intricate surgery that will take 36 hours to execute. He’s going to have to find 150 medical professionals with no sense of ethics at all, who are willing to risk their careers carrying out an elaborate act of slow torture and murder.
I find it hard to believe that anyone is taking Canavero at all seriously.