It’s time for a serious debate about head transplants | New Scientist
What goes ha ha bonk? The sound of scientists laughing their heads off. That was one response to the quality of some of the science in a series of papers published this week claiming to have achieved a milestone in spinal cord surgery, something neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero believes paves the way for a human head transplant as early as next year.
It is one thing to find the science risibly weak, but on the bigger issue of head transplants – or more accurately, full-body transplants – nobody is laughing. The surgery seems macabre but is scientifically feasible and could offer real benefits to some people. But it is medically, not to say ethically, very challenging.
Technically, the most difficult part of the procedure is to get the spinal cords of the head and the donor body to fuse. That is where the research teams behind this week’s papers claim to have made progress.
Or have they? According to many of the external experts we consulted, there are huge question marks over the quality of the science, and some glaring holes that ought to have been filled before publication. The research teams involved defend themselves, but it is hard not to conclude that they rushed the papers into publication.
The pressure to publish is real. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The danger is that these less-than-extraordinary papers will bring the whole idea of head transplants into disrepute. The apparent eagerness of Canavero – who wasn’t directly involved in the research but collaborates with one of the teams – to perform an actual transplant only adds to the impression of a headlong rush where a cool head is required.
Admittedly, many once-taboo medical procedures have been driven forward by determined pioneers operating close to the fringes: heart and face transplants spring to mind. But these didn’t happen without the issue being discussed in both professional circles and wider society.
Until now, neurosurgeons and bioethicists have been reluctant to engage with the claims and ambitions of the head transplant pioneers, fearing that any comment will be seen as an endorsement. But the time for silence is over. We need a debate about the feasibility and desirability of the surgery.
Even if head transplants prove impossible or unacceptable, full spinal cord repair would be a breakthrough of huge importance. It’s time to get serious, lest this opportunity is lost.