Off With Their Heads!

Photo credit: Ana Dumitru


Hold on to your socks, because we’re in for a wild ride. Every so often, news about a certain neurosurgeon and his “brilliant” ideas of human head transplantation make the rounds. I’ve been ignoring them until now in a delusional attempt of thinking that, if no one engages with wacky ideas, they’ll eventually die down. But just because scientists don’t bother with him, it doesn’t mean that the media won’t. And over the last few years I’ve seen the narrative switch from “wow, what a ridiculous idea!” to “human head transplant coming soon to a store next to you!”. What the hell, guys? So I think it’s time to sit down and address what this is about and why it’s so incredibly ridiculous.

Now, if you’ve never heard of Sergio Canavero, consider yourself lucky! Sadly, whether you like it or not, your luck has now run out. So…

Who is Sergio Canavero and what does he want?

Sergio Canavero is a guy with an idea. A stupid idea, but we’ll get to that soon. He is an Italian neurosurgeon who trained and later worked at the University Hospital in Turin until his contract termination in 2015, when he gained notoriety for some wild claims. His mission (and the reason why the hospital distanced itself from him) is simple: he wants to make human head transplantation a reality.

Inspired from Frankenstein, the idea is, in theory, equally straightforward and disturbing: take a functional head stuck to a dysfunctional body (for example, that of someone suffering from some type of muscular dystrophy) and stick it on a functional body with a dysfunctional head (that is, of a brain dead person). The more pedantic among you probably already noticed that, technically, it’s not a head transplant, but a body transplant. However, in Mr. Canavero’s own words: “head transplantation, body transplantation, whatever.” Who wouldn’t trust such a doctor, am I right?

In practice, there are a number of reasons why it’s stupid. In what follows next, we will try to address at least some of these reasons, but, of course, with such a complex procedure, there are many more hidden variables which need to be considered, so keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list. With that being said, we will consider three main groups of issues:

  • good scientific practice issues (page 2)
  • implementation issues (page 3)
  • ethical issues (page 4)

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