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Reasons to Take a Human Head Transplant Seriously: These Mice

The surgeon who wants to perform the first human head transplant will outline his plan later this week.
Some of Ren's mice. Image: CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics

The hype surrounding the announcement that the world's first human head transplant is in the planning phases has died down, and now it's time to get real: Is an Italian scientist really going to place the head of a paralyzed man onto a donor body? Will it work?

There are two things happening right now that make it possible the answer to both of those questions is not a resounding "hell no."

First, Sergio Canavero, the would-be head transplant surgeon, is going to be giving a keynote presentation at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons's annual meeting on Friday. Canavero has repeatedly said that, at this meeting, he will unveil his "secret sauce" for doing the head transplant.


And second, there is a surgeon in China who—using a technique similar to Canavero's—has performed head transplants on more than 1,000 mice, with plans to soon switch to monkeys.

In April, soon after Canavero announced that he would perform the head transplants, his critics quickly said that, if this was possible, someone, somewhere would be practicing head transplants in animal models.

Over the weekend, the the Wall Street Journal met with Xiaoping Ren met with Xiaoping Ren, a Chinese surgeon who has received more than $1.6 million in government and university funding to chop the heads off of one mouse and put them on another. For effect, he seems to mix up the colors—he'll put the head of a black mouse onto the body of a white mouse, or the head of a white mouse onto the body of a brown mouse.

Ren has not had a whole lot of success with this experiment yet. The mice seem to be able to open their eyes and breathe on their own, and their bodies show signs of movements, which are all good signs. But, so far, each of them have died within a day. He says he hopes to transplant the head of a monkey onto a donor body and have it live for, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, "a little while."

None of this really inspires confidence in the idea that a successful human head transplant is going to happen in 2017, as Canavero plans for it to. But the fact that someone is doing animal trials at all suggests that, just maybe, he's on to something.


The Chinese team is using a technique similar to the one Canavero has proposed—the thinking goes that if you sever the spinal cord with an ultra sharp blade, the clean cut will have more of a chance of fusing back together.

"One crucial set of steps you'd have to go through is a long series of animal experiments," Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University's medical school, told me in April. "No one has really done serious work with animals."

Caplan said this before many knew of this work going on in China. According to the WSJ, the researchers there seem to be attempting to answer many of the questions and fears Caplan has with any would-be head transplant.

"Clearly you begin with animals and see if you can keep the head from rejecting, will the healing lead you to see some sort of function in a transplanted head?" Caplan said. "Do they integrate with the body? Do you get some kind of signs of mental illness taking place because the brain can't deal with the new body's chemistry?"

Canavero very well may be the mad scientist that some have painted him as. But, for the moment, maybe we should withhold judgment until at least Friday, when we'll hear more about his plan.