In 2015, Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero announced that he intended to perform a human head transplant within a few years, and even more shockingly, he had a volunteer for the almost guaranteed-to-be-lethal procedure: a Russian man named Valery Spiridonov. What happened to this crazy plan? And what would it actually take to perform a human head transplant?

In 2015, Dr. Sergio Canavaro, a man who in no way looks like a mad scientist who wants to wants to attempt a human head transplant… announced that he was totally going to attempt a human head transplant.

And everyone around him was like…

And believe it or not, he had a volunteer!
They guy’s name was Valery Spiridonov, he was a Russian programmer with a muscle-wasting disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which left him paralyzed and immobile.
So he heard about someone who wanted to try a head transplant and was like, “You know what, pop this head on something better.”
Many of you probably already know this story, hell I may have talked about it in a video before. I can’t keep up with all my videos.
But here we are now nearly 10 years later and it we haven’t really heard much about it since then.

So I wanted to revisit this story and see what happened, and take a deep dive into the feasibility of this thing, like what do you actually need to do to switch out your head?
To get the answer, I spoke with Rohin over at Medlife Crisis, who helped put the whole thing into perspective:

What happened to Dr. Canavaro’s crazy dream? Is it actually feasible, what kind of advancements could be made because of it, and maybe the biggest question… Is it a head transplant or a body transplant?

The year is 1780, the place is the city of Bologna, and you’re an assistant for an eccentric professor named Luigi Galvani. When one day he asks you to bring him a frog for dissection.

So you fetch a preserved frog, but when you bring it to him, you see that he has a series of wires attached to a hand-cranked electric generator.
You probably roll your eyes at this, your boss has been kind-of obsessed with this new “electricity” thing for a while, he’s been playing around with it a lot and usually ends up shocking himself – sometimes on purpose.
So you’re not too surprised when he opens up the frog and attaches electrodes to the frog’s nerves. You are surprised, though, when he cranks the machine… and the dead frog tries to hop.

At least it looks like it, the legs pump up and down uncontrollably… causing you to uncontrollably pee your pants.

Galvani used this and other experiments to hypothesize that there’s a kind of biological electricity that powers animals, including humans. This comes to be known as Galvanism and leads to a whole field of study over the next decades.

Galvani was… kinda right? Human cells do have electrical action potentials, especially nervous system cells, but he was mostly wrong in how it worked. Regardless, this idea of being able to control body parts and resurrecting dead tissue with electrical circuits inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 30 years later.

Frankenstein of course featuring a monster constructed with multiple body parts from different dead people, then shocked into existence by a madman.

This might have been the first time the idea was put on paper that a person could put a human head on another human body and bring that body to life. Even though transplants wouldn’t really be a thing for another 100 years.
It’s kinda hard to pull off a transplant in a time before anesthesia, when surgeries had to be done as fast as possible. Also they didn’t have antibiotics, immunosuppressive drugs, and didn’t even understand different blood types.
It would have been a disaster in a million different ways.
The first successful organ transplant was a kidney transplant in 1954, but people were experimenting with head transplants long before that.
In fact, it was way back in 1908 when an American doctor named Charles Guthrie did a uh… (hesitate, lean forward) You know, I did a video a while back about animals in space that nobody seemed to like because, well, it involved a lot of animals dying, including dogs… Anyway, you might want to skip forward a bit if you’re one of those people because I’m about to talk about some dog experiments.
Basically Charles Guthrie sewed the head of one dog onto another dog and made a two-headed dog.
Horrible as that may be – and it is horrible – it was a breakthrough of sorts because he was able to prove that you could keep a head alive by connecting it to a source of blood. In fact he later won the Nobel Prize for his research.
He wouldn’t be the last, as Rohin points out.

We’ll hear more from Rohin here in a minute but I wanted to pause for a a second and thank him for his time, if you don’t follow Rohin, he’s got a channel called Medlife Crisis on YouTube and over on Nebula, it’s great medical advice with a healthy dose of humor. Kinda like what I do but he’s an actual doctor, so go check him out.

But yeah, a little extra context to what he was saying about Vladimir Demikhov and his 2-headed dogs, he did this experiment over 20 times. He created 20 two-headed dogs.
He arranged them in different ways, included more or less of the second dog, some of them included the entire front half of the dog with its legs and everything, he wanted to know if one dog’s heart could support two different heads – YouTube won’t let me show you this so I’ll share this uncencored on Nebula, otherwise you can look it up if you’re curious.

And the other guy Rohin mention was Robert White, he pioneered the use of hypothermia to keep the brain stable during brain surgery, which has saved a lot of lives.
Aaaand he did head transplants on over 30 rhesus monkeys.

These surgeries were sort-of successful in that the monkeys lived for up to 8 days, they were conscious, they were able to respond to all kinds of stimuli, they had full control of their facial muscles – one of them even tried to bite one of the doctors. I think understandably…

They weren’t, however, able to control their bodies.
White’s legacy is fairly complicated because of these surgeries, which is something you see a lot from these people, they are respected for being pioneers in their fields, but there’s just something about doing head transplants that automatically puts you into the yikes category.

Which brings us back to Sergio Canavaro.

Canavaro was born in Turin, Italy in 1964 and according to him, he had a rough upbringing in a poor family, but he worked hard and at age 18, enrolled in the Medical program at the University of Turin.
He graduated from there and trained in the hospital as a functional neurosurgeon beginning in the 80s. He would go on to work as a neurosurgeon at the University hospital for the next 22 years.

And by all accounts, he was an accomplished neurosurgeon. He did pioneering work on Central Pain Syndrome and Parkinson’s disease, even becoming the director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group.

And yet, in 2015, he was unceremoniously fired from his position at the University and they cut all ties with him. For some reason…

Yeah, it was the severed head thing.
Also I should point out that his Wikipedia page says that he’s been described as having an “idiosyncratic personality”
Really? The head transplant guy is just a little… off? Who knew?

Turns out he’s been interested in this topic since the 80s but he started making real plans in the 2010s. And in 2015 he published a rough description of how he’d do it. And who he’d do it to.

That man was Valery Spiridonov, who I mentioned at the beginning of this video.
So Valery’s story seems to have played out like this, he was 33 years old when he first signed up for this. That was in 2015, and his body was still deteriorating from a condition called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease.

He went from a healthy, normal dude to having trouble walking, having trouble writing, and he just kept getting worse and worse until he was confined to a wheelchair and had to have almost everything done for him.

I can only imagine what that would be like and the mental state that would put you in. And I don’t want to say that he was ready to end it all, but with his body getting progressively worse, he may have feared what was coming with his condition more than the possibility of the surgery going wrong.

Now, when Canavaro announced the surgery, he described it as, “imminent.” But after his announcement, he lost his position at the University of Turin Hospital and had to find a new home base to do this from. And he found one, in China.
Harbin University, specifically, where an orthopedic surgeon named Xiaoping Ren had been doing similar research.

This relocating and further research pushed back the “imminence” of the surgery by a few years and while Valery was waiting, something… kind-of amazing happened.
First of all, his body kinda stabilized.

His disease stopped progressing. Now that might be an overly optimistic way of saying that it got as bad as it was going to get, like it couldn’t possibly get any worse but… It wasn’t getting any worse. And he kinda learned to live with it.
Second of all… Dude got married!

Yeah, he met a woman named Anastasia Panfilova, they fell in love and got married. This is a picture of Anastasia. She married him. (react)
Oh, and she’s got a masters degree in chemical engineering, so she’s also very smart and accomplished and… they are married.

Yeah, he dropped out of the surgery.

So my choices are spending the rest of my life with a hot Russian chemistry genius or have my head cut off by Dr. Nosferatu over here…

Gee, I don’t know…

No, all kidding aside, the two are happily married, they have a kid together, they now live in Florida and he runs his own software company. He is living his best life and in 2019, he dropped out of the surgery, though he does still support the mission.

So the head transplant dream is dead, right?
No! Does this look like a guy who gives up on things?
Ren and Canavaro’s research continued throughout the 2010s and they produced some amazing results… Kinda?

For one thing, they claimed to have “successfully” done a head transplant on a rat. But it was kind-of more like the dog experiments where they just sewed one rat’s head onto another rat’s body… And it only lived for 36 hours.
But Canavaro claimed it was a success because the goal was to minimize the amount of blood loss.

I’m finding that “success” is a very malleable term when talking about head transplants.
Even more impressive, in 2017, they did actually perform a human head transplant… on cadavers.

And it was “successful.”

Obviously, neither of the participants survived the surgery because they were dead before it started, but by “successful” they mean they were able to fully perform the head transplant protocol that Canavero had outlined in his 2015 paper.
That protocol by the way is called the HEAVEN protocol… Probably not the best name for something that’s likely going to kill you.

It stands for HEad Anastomosis Venture.
Yeah, the sciency term for head transplant is a Cephalosomatic anastomosis. So you know that now.

And this protocol that they “successfully” performed on the cadavers and will “imminently” perform on living people works like this:

The HEAVEN Protocol

The donor and the recipient are brought into the operating room together and both are intubated, tracheotomized, ventilated, and stabilized, and wired for monitoring of vital signs, ECG, EEG, oxygen saturation, body temperature, and whatnot.
By the way, in the paper, the donor refers to the body and the recipient is the head so technically this is a body transplant and not a head transplant.
Once both are anesthetized, the recipient’s head is subjected to profound hypothermia through cooling helmets, as well as a heat exchanger applied to the femoral-carotid artery. The goal is to cool the brain to around 10 degrees celsius.
The donor’s body is also cooled but only the spinal column by pumping cold solutions into the subdural and epidural spaces.
Hypothermia of course slows the metabolic process and reduces damage to cells and tissues.

Next is the whole “removing the heads” part.

Two surgical teams work on the bodies simultaneously, meticulously severing the nerves, arteries, and muscles and labeling them for reconnection later. They start with the anterior, or the front of the neck, including the trachea and esophagus, and then move the bodies into a prone position to do the back of the neck, or the posterior. This is where the spinal column is transected, exposing the spinal cord.

So the cutting and reattaching of the spinal cord has its own protocol that they call GEMINI – I couldn’t find what that stands for but in involves an as-yet uninvented ultrasharp microsurgical instrument called a GEMINotome. This is sci-fi technology number one.

Once the spinal cord is cut, the head is placed on the donor body as quickly as possible and the spinal cord is glued together using sci-fi technology number two: a polyethelyne glycol glue infused with chitosan nanofibers.

This would supposedly have the ability to immediately reconstitute cell membranes that we damaged during the severing process.

The head is then connected to the donor body’s circulation, the spinal column is stabilized with a screw and rod system, then the trachea and esophagus are stitched back together and finally the muscles and nerves are painstakingly reconnected before finally the neck is sewn up.

Obviously I left a ton out of that description, this is expected to last 36 hours and require a staff of 130 doctors, it’s a massive undertaking.

But when it comes down to it, 90% of this surgery is stuff that we can totally do. We can reconnect nerves and muscles, we can stitch together tracheas and even transect vertebrae. The thing we’ve still never quite pulled off is the spinal cord thing.
Hence the couple of science fiction technologies that don’t exist yet… Or do they?

In the interview with Valery that I shared earlier, they showed this footage of a monkey that, according to Canavero and his team, had had its spinal cord severed and they were able to fully repair it, giving it the ability to walk again.
Now, I tried to verify this clip, because if they were actually able to do this, it would be huge. Like, HUGE. But I couldn’t find anything, now if any of you have some proof that I couldn’t find, please share in the comments but as far as I can tell, this is a video that was released by Canavaro and his team and we’re just supposed to take them at their word.

Which I find super suspicious because these guys publish a lot of papers, pretty much any tiny advancement they can manage they publish a paper and plaster it all over the place, but I couldn’t find anything on this. Again, if I missed it, correct me down below.

Most of the Canavero monkey headlines revolved around a head transplant they did on a monkey in 2016 that survived for 20 hours, but never had control of its body.

So… If I’m going to be fair to Canavero and all the other head cases, there are kind-of two obstacles to overcome, the first is just making sure the head can be kept alive by reconnecting it to a different body’s blood supply. The second is giving the head control over the body by reconnecting the spinal cord. And they focused on the first problem first. Which makes sense.
Of course that’s kind-of a solved problem, I mean, Demhikov was doing this on dogs back in the 50s.

The second problem, reconnecting the spinal cord, that’s where the sci-fi technologies come in. And while I couldn’t find proof of the walking monkey experiment, I did find papers on rat experiments where they claim to have done this.
Canavero’s solution to this – traditionally – has been to reconnect the spinal cord using polyethelyne glycol. Which, Rohin explains the problem with this:

Now there has been a twist in recent years, I found this out after talking with Rohin, there’s a new type of PEG that they used in those rat experiments that might hold some promise.

It was invented by a guy named William Sikkema – he’s a Rice Ph.D candidate in biomedical nanotechnology who created a polyethelyne glycol substrate containing carbon nanofiber ribbons that he called Texas-PEG. Because Rice University is in Houston.
In a talk for Ideacity, William showed how these rats had their spinal cords severed and how the ones treated with the graphene nanoribbons made almost a full recovery.
And according to William, the way this works is the nanoribbons provide a kind of latticework that the damaged neurons can use to cross the divide and reconnect and heal together – apparently when nerves get severed they reach out in thin spikes that make it hard for them to connect. Plus the graphene is electrically conductive, so it allows signals to bridge the gap while it’s healing.

So look, head transplant stuff aside, if this Texas-PEG stuff could really repair spinal cord injuries, this would be a massive game changer and something to get really excited about.
Luckily William is continuing his research at Rice University. He’s under the mentorship of James Tour… Who uh… has been accused of publishing fraudulent papers and hyping breakthroughs that don’t exist and vocally doesn’t believe in evolution…

Have you ever researched a topic and become convinced you’re taking crazy pills?
Every time I think I’ve stumbled on something legit, it just nopes itself back into crazy town.

It almost goes without saying that this entire thing has been overwhelmingly criticized by the medical and scientific community.

Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe from Emory University said that it “walks a fine line between medical care and murder should the attempt fail.”

Jan Schnupp, professor of neuroscience at City University of Hong Kong said “I would really quite like the general public to be reassured that neither I nor any of my colleagues think that beheading people for extremely long-shot experiments is acceptable. It is not!”

The President of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons said in 2015: “I would not wish this on anyone. I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.”

And bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University said, “They haven’t done enough animal studies to persuade anyone that they actually know what they are doing. It’s sort of a long, endless publicity tour.”

And I could go on, but that last one is something I’ve seen repeated a lot, that this is not science, it’s a big publicity campaign, because ultimately he’s trying to raise millions of dollars to perform this surgery. He apparently even tried to get Mark Zuckerberg to send him some money
But the scientific community has roundly condemned this thing, he lost his position at Turin University, and while he was given an honorary position at Harbin University in China, apparently they gave him the boot too, a couple years back.
He’s gone fairly quiet since then, he claims he still has a long line of volunteers since Valery dropped out and that he’s continuing his research in an undisclosed location.

Probably an underground lair. If anybody’s got an underground lair on an island somewhere it’s this guy.

In 2022, he published a paper claiming he’s figured out a way to do just a brain transplant. So if you can’t get something done, just claim you can do something even wilder.

Seriously… crazy pills.

But Rohin had a pretty good idea for how he would do it so I’ll give him the last word:

So will head transplants ever actually be a thing? I mean on a long enough timeline pretty much anything’s possible, but the big hurdle has to be solving the spinal cord injury thing. Which, if that could be solved, that would be huge for so many people around the world.

Maybe the carbon nanoribbon solution thing can get us there, that would be amazing but given how sketch everything else in this story has been, I have my reservations.
Sketchy, but also just hype. A lot of hype to see through.

My take is until they solve that problem and can reliably do this in animals, it’s just way overstepping right now. It’s doing it just to say you did it.

For now though it seems the hype train has kinda left the station – like the reason I wanted to revisit this was because I hadn’t heard anything about it in a while. Maybe it’s kinda run its course, maybe Canavero ran out of options and decided to wait and maybe focus on the nanoribbon thing.

Because I mean hey, if he actually figures out a way to reconnect a spinal cord, I mean that would be history-making enough. So to that, hey, Godspeed.

I’m gonna get some lunch.

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