No, Head Transplants Won’t Happen and Here’s Why

An Italian neurosurgeon says he can thaw a frozen brain, but scientists are wary.

Flickr / joestump

An Italian neurosurgeon who’s previously discussed transplanting an entire human head onto another body has made a mind-boggling claim: Doctors will be able to thaw and transplant cryogenically frozen brains held by Arizona’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation within the next three years.

“We will try to bring the first of the company’s patients back to life,” Sergio Canavero told the German magazine Ooom. “As soon as the first human transplant has taken place, i.e. no later than 2018, we will be able to attempt to reawaken the first frozen head.”

His most recent claim may seem bold, but is right in line with what we’ve come to expect from Canavero, director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy.

But experts aren’t buying Canavero’s prophecies, despite the understandable excitement they’ve ignited. Like Galileo and Copernicus, Canavero is ridiculed for his beliefs. But unlike these pioneers of physics and astronomy, he still hasn’t shown any evidence why we should believe him.

Canavero’s track record is suspect. He claimed to have successfully transplanted a monkey head in 2016, though he didn’t show enough proof to convince anybody in the scientific community. That same year, Canavero made headlines when he found a volunteer for a head transplant, a Russian computer scientist named Valery Spiridonov who suffers from Werdnig Hoffman disease, a muscle condition that leaves him wheelchair-bound.

“If I have a chance of full body replacement I will get rid of the limits and be more independent,” he told The Telegraph in September 2016.

But Spiridinov and Canavero are having a tough time finding people who are just as enthusiastic as they are about this unprecedented procedure. That’s because scientists doubt that a full-blown head transplant can be successful, and ethicists find the whole idea not only distasteful but possibly also illegal.

“I think it’s ludicrously stupid,” Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, told Live Science. “You’d probably be charged with homicide if you chop somebody’s head off before they’re dead.”

Even so, Canavero’s latest claim that he will revive cryogenically frozen brains makes his notion of a head transplant sound almost reasonable. After all, scientists have performed some tricky transplants, including a face transplant.

But they haven’t successfully thawed a frozen brain — yet.

“The advocates of cryogenics are unable to cite any study in which a whole mammalian brain, let alone a whole mammalian body, has been resuscitated after storage in liquid nitrogen,” Clive Coen, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, tells The Telegraph. “Even if reviving that body were possible — it isn’t — all the complicated organs would have been wrecked from the start, and warming them up again would wreck them further.”

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