Brain and Body

Chinese Doctor Announces Plans for a Human Head Transplant

June 14, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Students assisting a surgery at Hebei North University
Photo credit: CMSRC/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

What could possibly go wrong?

For paraplegics and amputees, the dream of being able to walk again may seem like an impossibility — but Dr. Ren Xiaoping thinks he may be up for the challenge of completing the world’s first head transplant.

The idea involves severing two heads from their bodies — a donor body and a recipient body — and then connecting the blood vessels of the donor body to the recipient’s head. Then, a metal plate would be inserted to stabilize the neck, and the spinal cord nerve endings would be soaked in a substance to encourage them to connect.

In theory, the recipient would be able to enjoy the benefits of the working body, but only if none of the many potential disasters occur during the procedure.

SEE ALSO: The world’s only head transplant surgeon graduates from mice to monkeys

Dr. Xiaoping gained attention in the media months ago after claiming to perform the world’s first monkey head transplant, but the monkey only survived for about 20 hours before it was euthanized for ethical reasons.

At that time, Dr. Xiaoping declined to comment on the potential of human head transplants, but has now told the New York Times that he and his team will conduct the operation “when we are ready.” He says they’re now fine-tuning the operation.

The New York Times reports that several people have already volunteered themselves as guinea pigs for the head transplant procedure, including 62-year-old Wang Huanming who was paralyzed from the neck down six years ago after wrestling with a friend went wrong.

Plus, Dr. Xiaoping isn’t alone in his desire to conduct a head transplant. Last year, Dr. Sergio Canavero claimed he would attempt to carry out the world’s first human head transplant as soon as 2017.

Commenting on Dr. Canavero’s plans in a Forbes article, Arthur Caplan, the head of medical ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center, said, “Would a brain integrate new signals, perceptions, information from a body different from the one it was familiar with? I think the most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.”

Now, following up on Dr. Xiaoping’s announcement, Caplan told the Times, “The Chinese system is not transparent in any way. I do not trust Chinese bioethical deliberation or policy. Add healthy doses of politics, national pride and entrepreneurship, and it is tough to know what is going on.”

Dr. Xiaoping does acknowledge that the undertaking is incredibly difficult. He told the Times that he’s been practicing medicine in China and overseas for more than 30 years, but even the most complicated operations don’t compare to this one.

“Whether it’s ethical or not, this is a person’s life,” he said. “There is nothing higher than a life, and that’s the core of ethics.”

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