Your latest head transplant news

I’m sure you’re all wondering what’s happening with Sergio Canavero and his dangerous and unethical plan to transplant whole heads. Three new papers have been published claiming to have achieved partial regeneration of function of severed spinal cords in mice and rats and dogs.

Credible scientists do not believe it.

However, papers published today detailing the spinal cord repair technique applied to the dog have prompted other scientists to express concerns over the work. “These papers do not support moving forward in humans,” says Jerry Silver, a neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Jerry Silver is so nice. I’m more likely to say that these are cases of scientific fraud and that they are so shoddily done that they shouldn’t have been published. Of course, the way that they got published is that Canavero was the editor of all three who allowed them into the journal.

The “breakthrough” that they’re promoting is that after severing the cords, they tried some additional experimental treatments that were supposed to promote regrowth: they injected the site with polyethylene glycol (PEG) and with graphene ribbons. I’ve used PEG to make hybridomas — it’s basically a membrane solvent that allows adjacent cells to fuse with one another. The graphene ribbons act as electrical conductors to allow current to flow across the lesion.

I gawp in astonishment that anyone would think this would work, and that any ethical review board would allow them to continue. I should belatedly warn you that the New Scientist link includes a video of dogs and mice intentionally crippled and struggling to move.

Here’s the problem restated in cruder terms. This is a fancy cable with multiple insulated strands running through it — of course, it’s nowhere near as complicated as the human spinal cord.

It’s cut.


Now a friendly electrician tells you he can fix it easily. He’s not going to splice each wire together to restore the proper connections, instead, he has an easier solution: he’s going to inject acid into the cable to dissolve insulation and encourage the copper wires to fuse, and he’s going to fill the cable with an electrically conductive goop that will allow signals to cross the broken end.

Does this sound like it will work to you? These are generic treatments that completely ignore the specificity of the necessary connections. He’s just claiming that anything to promote fusion will work, and that the cables will somehow sort themselves out.

Would you let him reassemble your home theater system with this technique? He’s happy to show you videos of his work, with a television flickering and fading and speakers sputtering and wowing, all for verisimilitude’s sake, but he’s not actually able to show you that these botched repair jobs used these techniques.

You might ask for some quantitative measures of the success of his technique, and he tells you that it works maybe half the time, and that all of the controls, in which he just cut cables and plugged them together, burst into flames and exploded. (of his experimental mice, 5/8 showed some degree of improvement, 3/8 died, and all of his controls died, which is really suspicious right there).

In another experiment with rats, all but one of the experimental animals was accidentally killed in a flood, but that one showed great improvement. One. This is nothing but a dubious anecdote. How could it get published at all?

Somehow, though, this shabby work is getting funded, is passing review boards, and is getting published. And Canavero is planning to try it on a human subject.

Apparently, if you put on a white coat and have a medical degree, you can get away with torturing small animals before planning the torture-murder of a human being.


  1. numerobis says

    The group state that a flood in the lab subsequently killed four of the five rats that had been treated with Texas-PEG.

    Then you say “well shit” and you get some more rats and try the experiment again. How the hell do you publish an experiment that got screwed over by external reasons?

  2. blf says

    I’m inclined to suggest Canavero demonstrate confidence in the scheme by completely severing and then re-attaching his own head — except this shoddy “research” means that would be even more unethical than Trump & all other Republicans.

  3. marcoli says

    I am not sure about this, but I thought regeneration in damaged nervous tissue, as in repair of a spinal cord injury, would not involve fusion between neuron processes like splicing together wires. What is required, I think, is to regrow the severed processes from the central nervous system side of the injury to the the target organ, which can be several feet away. This would take place through a region of the spinal cord and then through peripheral nerves. The regenerating processes would need to navigate through a complex and dense route to their targets, and although nerve processes do regrow a little, they are not equipped to grow that much. Problems abound in getting this to work even a tiny bit.
    Ethylene glycol would not likely help, but I can see how it might soften the passageway. It is still total bullshit, however.

  4. jtdavi3 says

    “Somehow, though, this shabby work is getting funded, is passing review boards, and is getting published.”

    I mean, seriously. I can’t tell you how much paperwork I have to do for the IRB, and my studies are all retrospective with literally no risk to the patients (the only “risk” I report is the possibility of data breach, which exists on any EMR network regardless of how the records are being used and is out of my control in any case), and still they aren’t even always approved. This dude is insane, as is anyone who collaborated with or approves of his “research”.

  5. says

    #4: One of the major obstacles to regeneration is scar tissue, so PEG might break that up, but it’s still relying on regrowing axons navigating correctly.

  6. Matthias Neeracher says

    With experiments that end with “all but one test subject killed in a flood”, he has a great future in some Creation Science research institute.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    blf @ # 7: … Right-Wing Brain Surgeons: The Case of Surgical Neurology International (Feb-2015).

    Very intriguing and relevant exposé – thanks.

    I for one greatly look forward to SNI‘s special issue on “Evolution – Hoax or Fraud?”

  8. robro says

    Does this [melding wires] sound like it will work to you?

    Absolutely, or at least it might…if you’re trying to burn down the house.

  9. says

    Yeah, so much wrong.

    You do not publish experiments with no controls.

    You do not publish surgical experiments without a sham surgery control.

    You do not publish experiments where the controls all died.

    You do not publish experiments where a lab accident destroyed all but one subject.

    These are so bad they’re laughable, except the guy is using them to argue for the experiment of chopping a man’s head off.

  10. busterggi says

    Medical science has come a long way since Jason Robards & Rosie Grier. I understand that work is proceeding well on the Centepede Project.

  11. DrewN says

    Shouldn’t they be using a model animal like an axolotl that actually has the ability to competently regrow nerves etc. this early in the research rather then using mammals? At least until he has a methodology that doesn’t kill most of his test subjects?
    I’m a layman, but that’s my (very basic) understanding of the steps of scientific research. “How does X work?” “Can we recreate X?” “How can we apply what we’ve learned about X to Y?”

  12. emergence says

    Here’s something else to consider; fixing spinal chord injuries is something that a lot of medical researchers have been trying to do by itself for quite some time. Just managing to get someone with a severed spinal chord to walk again would be a monumental accomplishment. This guy is not only claiming to have found a method to fix spinal chord injuries, but also to use it to remove someone’s head and attach it to someone else’s body. Canavero is glossing over the extreme difficulty of one experimental medical procedure in order to jump ahead to another, even more difficult procedure. It’s like when people think that we’re going to develop fully sapient androids before we ever make robots with insect-like intelligence. Technological progress doesn’t work like that.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    PZ Myers @ # 13: You do not publish experiments where the controls all died.

    ??? Say you have a possible treatment for Creeping Crud, a 100% fatal mouse disease.

    You apply this treatment to a test batch of 100 mice, and a control group of 100 mice – all infected with CC.

    If all the controls die, you can’t publish regardless of what happens to the test group?

  14. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Sounds to me he is extrapolating too much out of the feature of “plasticity” the brain possesses. Where a damaged section of the brain will “rewire” itself to compensate, such that a nearby region of the brain will implement a similar function to the damaged area. Similar happens with neurons in the extremities, where intact neurons nearby will functionally replace damaged neurons.
    Both of the above I have personal experience. The first through TBI, the second through a neuropathy in my left arm making me temporarily unable to release a fist.
    This is what I suspect the single paraplegic canine experiment resulted from. The dog’s own physiology tried to restore the functions that the experiment took away.
    so, uh, I’m lost, don;t know where I’m leading, just tuns my stomach to think of his proposals and his attempt to justify it.

  15. Becca Stareyes says

    If all the controls die, you can’t publish regardless of what happens to the test group?

    Disclaimer: I’m not in the life sciences (I’m an astronomer), so PZ would give a better answer.

    Problem is that things are rarely as clean as ‘100% of mice die from Creeping Crud’. That’s usually what the control is demonstrating. Say you don’t give the mice enough Creeping Crud virus and only 75% of them get sick. The control lets you check that everything was done properly in setting up the experiment. Without that, it’s far weaker evidence, especially if it turns out that, say, rates of infection or death depend on the mouse’s environment or the strain of lab mouse you use.

    Add in that unlike in undergrad labs, it’s possible to redo an experiment when your experiment breaks, so you don’t have the ‘you must publish this data set, now, or never publish on this topic’. (If the experiment was, say, launched into orbit, there might be more desire to publish an incomplete data set without the controls under the assumption that it would justify the expense of trying again. But it is more of a ‘this is promising and we need to repeat this properly’ not ‘we are ready to move on’.)

  16. Anton Mates says

    and all of his controls died

    Wait, what? Why? A spinal cord lesion shouldn’t be fatal, unless…is there some incredibly high rate of infection among his subjects? Is his lab being smitten with floods and plague?

    This guy shouldn’t be allowed to work with any organism not found in the produce aisle.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    Becca Stareyes @ # 23 – thanks! The second I clicked the “Post” button, I started imagining harsh putdowns of my seething ignorance…

  18. oliversarmy says

    Uhhhhh, hello. I saw a documentary about this very thing working. For the life of me I cannot remember the name of the doctor involved. Doctor…….Doctor……Doctor…..dammit! Can somebody help me out and tell me Doctor who?!?!

  19. Amphiox says

    PZ Myers @ # 13: You do not publish experiments where the controls all died.
    ??? Say you have a possible treatment for Creeping Crud, a 100% fatal mouse disease.
    You apply this treatment to a test batch of 100 mice, and a control group of 100 mice – all infected with CC.
    If all the controls die, you can’t publish regardless of what happens to the test group?

    You do not publish experiments where the controls all died unless the natural history of the disease entity you are studying makes is reasonable, based on your sample size, that your controls would all die.

    But even then, most reviewers would probably suggest to you that you change your experimental design so that the end-point is one that does not involve the controls dying, and most ethics boards would insist on it before approving your experiment!

  20. gijoel says

    If you had the technology to actually transplant a severed head, and regenerate the spinal cord such that the new body could function in something approaching normal, then wouldn’t it be easier to leave the head on it’s original body and apply those techniques to that. Also I can’t even imagine the tissue rejection/ immune system problems you’d have.

    Also have some classic Australian 90s techno. Pun intended.