Head transplant doctors post proof they can reattach spinal cord to donated body

Surgeons from China and Italy claimed that two studies published Wednesday add evidence to their ability to treat “irreversible” spinal-cord injuries and a related controversial aspiration to perform the world’s first human head transplant.

Xiaoping Ren and Sergio Canavero said the new work they published in a scientific journal showed that monkeys and dogs were able to walk again after their spinal cords were “fully transected” during surgery and then put back together again. The neurosurgeons described the results as medically “unprecedented.”

The highly experimental procedures took place at Harbin Medical University in China. Both studies were supported by video evidence and published in Surgical Neurology International, a peer-reviewed medical journal based in the United States.

Canavero, who is based in Turin, Italy, and has a reputation in the global medical community as something of a sensationalist, said that for too long neurological surgeons have “stuck to the view that a severed spinal cord cannot be mended in any way, a mantra uncritically repeated over and over.” 

Still, even if the alleged advance – it involves applying a polyethylene glycol substance, or PEG, “to mend” severed or injured spinal cords – withstands further scrutiny and is ultimately capable of helping patients with spinal cord injuries and paralysis it is likely to be met with skepticism. That’s partly because of the two researchers’ past claims that they want to use the technique with PEG as a basis for human head transplants.

While the researchers have tested head transplants, with some success, on small animals including mice and dogs, it’s a concept that raises raises profound ethical, psychological and surgical questions. It also calls to mind Mary Shelley’s 1831 novel Frankenstein, about a scientist who creates a creature from body parts.

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