In essence, that’s what he wants to do to a man’s neck. Long term, it’s what he wants to do to your neck. He calls it a “Gemini” spinal cord fusion protocol, which will be used to perform a Cephalosomatic anastomosis, “the surgical transference of a healthy head on a surgically beheaded body under deep hypothermic conditions,” he explained in a paper published in February.
Maybe the hardest thing for people to wrap their heads around is that Canavero sees his announced head transplantation as only the beginning. The goal isn’t to save just the lives of people stricken with incurable muscle disorders. The goal is to eventually allow you to grow a clone body of yourself that you can then use to keep yourself physically young forever, by getting recurring head transplants onto donor bodies grown from your own genetic material (how you’ll keep your brain—and face—young during all of this is an unanswered question).
But enough of that, for now. For the first surgery, the plan is this: Take two people (one with a living head but a disabled body, the other braindead but with a healthy body), chop their heads off at the exact same time, place the healthy head on the healthy body, glue them together with a substance called Poly-ethylene glycol, and wait.
Valery Spiridonov was born with Wednig-Hoffman disorder, a genetic degenerative muscle atrophying disease. He hasn’t been able to walk since he was one-year-old. Spiridonov is the first volunteer for the transplant, and will be put into a coma for about four weeks after the surgery—the hope is that his spinal cord will naturally repair itself, and he’ll be able to walk roughly a year after surgery.
Canavero estimates it’ll cost $13 million and take a 150-doctor team to pull off the 36-hour surgery. But explaining how it works is surprisingly simple. Nerve cells notoriously don’t grow back very fast, if at all, when they are damaged. But there have been cases, when the spinal cord has been sharply severed—by a gunshot, for instance—in which a paralyzed person regains full movement. Like the banana, a spine is easier to put back together when it’s cut with a very sharp implement in a neat fashion, Canavero says.
"I am from another species of neurosurgeon"
It’s a longshot, to say the least. It’s been called a publicity stunt and Hunt Batjer, the president-elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons said that Spiridonov could face a fate “ worse than death” because, if it goes wrong, Spiridonov would not be able to breathe naturally. Canavero has been called a mad scientist and has been compared to Doctor Frankenstein, which isn’t unfair, considering he stood in front of a giant photo of Frankenstein (and the Terminator) at his TEDx talk.
That said, he is a real neurosurgeon, and this work has been attempted before, in monkeys and rats. Is it ever going to happen? No one can say for sure. But I caught up with Canavero on Skype over the weekend to learn what he has planned for all of us. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
In the middle of the 20th century, Dr. Robert White performed head transplants on monkeys that didn’t go so well. What’s different about yours?
You’ve been called a lot of things since you announced this.
"You will be able to get a new body. At age 60, you start cloning yourself and then, good as new"
For that, there’s no ethical question. My answer to Dr. Caplan [note: Dr. Arthur Caplan wrote an op-ed slamming Canavero’s plan] is he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The nutty guy is him, not me. That’s my answer for horrible conditions.
Who is going to pay for this?
You sound confident.
What can you tell me about Valery?
He’s a bright, bright, bright, bright human being who is in terrible condition. Valery decided the time was right and decided to come out.
Has that made things easier on you?
So, that’s good, but he received a lot of flack. It takes a burden. You get so many stupid questions from the press, you have to stay calm.
You mentioned life extension, and I know this is part of that. Do you want to transplant human heads onto artificial bodies? Is that where this is heading in say, 100 years?
I agree with the critics, this first one will be more like Kitty Hawk than a Boeing 747. Then it will be streamlined, perfected. It’ll be faster, you won’t need 150 persons, it won’t last 36 hours, it’ll be done in a hospital next to your building.
Cloning is not yet available on a scale, and the clones tend to die pretty quickly—they get to be ailing quickly, you don’t want to perform a cloning procedure on humans yet.
Imagine the future. Head transplantation has become feasible. Artificial uteri will be developed and perfected. In the beginning, it’ll help those with horrible conditions. But then, when cloning becomes available, it will change human history forever. You, me, well, hopefully me, will be able to get a new body. If you get a new body, within one year, you’re fine. At age 60, you start cloning yourself and then, good as new.
Are people with you on this? Do you have supporters?
“Dear Dr. Canavero, I do believe the linkage could be done successfully today. I would like to become part of your team. It was my life long dream to perform procedures like this. Here is what i can bring to the team: Trained as orthopedic surgeon, moved to US 15 years ago. I did a post at UMass and Harvard Medical School in regenerative medicine. Have done 400 experimental surgeries on animal models and organized experimental surgery with 5 human patients with incredible results [sic].”
Blah blah blah and so on. What is incredible is reading the papers, people say this is entirely impossible. But silently I’ve had a lot of support. There was a biochemist who said reconnecting the spinal cord is absolutely possible but the rejection part of it is what makes it hard. They’re redirecting now. Dr. Batjer, who said Valery could have a fate “worse than death,” he’s a vascular surgeon. A vascular surgeon of the brain, yes, but he knows nothing. How can you say such a thing? It’s incredible.
It seems hard for people to understand what you’re proposing, or to believe it I guess.
What about some of the other transhumanist things, like creating digital humans?
It sounds like there are a lot of possible options.
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.