Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Get Your Head Screwed on Right

By Michael Cook

Claims of the successful transplant of a human head may have been met by derision but they also reveal bioethical blindspots among ambitious surgeons.

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What can you do if you become a quadriplegic after a catastrophic injury, or if you’re getting old, weak and fat? One solution is head transplantation – once the theme of very bad science fiction films and now the theme of press conferences.

Controversial Italian neurosurgeon Dr Sergio Canavero announced to media in Vienna recently that a team from Harbin Medical University led by his colleague Dr Ren Xiaoping has carried out the world’s first head transplant experiment. (In his line of business, they call it cephalosomatic anastomosis.)

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

The announcement was greeted with no little 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.

Canavero has been working on this project for years. In a previous experiment he created a rat with an extra head. He has also attached a monkey head to a monkey body, but didn’t link the spinal cord to the brain. The fused creation lived for about 20 hours. Most observers would probably feel that much more animal experimentation is needed.

The ethical...

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