Head transplants? What could go wrong?

An Italian surgeon says the age of head transplants may be at hand.

CNET reports today that Dr. Sergio Canavero, director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, has perfected the technique first tried in the ’50s and ’70s in which a two-headed dog was created in the then Soviet Union, and a monkey’s head was transplanted by a Duluth native. Both died within a few days.

But now Canavero thinks he’s got it all sorted out.

In a paper published in Surgical Neurology International, he has outlined his technique: first, both the transplant head and the donor body would need to be cooled in order to slow cell death. Then, the neck of both would be cut and the major blood vessels linked with tubes. Finally, the spinal cords would be severed, with as clean a cut as possible.

Joining the spinal cords, with the tightly packed nerves inside, is key. The plan involves flushing the area with polyethylene glycol, followed by several hours of injections of the same, a chemical that encourages the fat in cell membranes to mesh.

The blood vessels, muscles and skin would then be sutured and the patient would be induced into a coma for several weeks to keep them from moving around; meanwhile, electrodes would stimulate the spine with electricity in an attempt to strengthen the new nerve connections. In case of rejection, the patient would be given anti-rejection immunosuppressants.

It would take at least a year for the patient to learn to walk again.

That’s if the procedure passes the ethics review.

“This is why I first spoke about the idea two years ago, to get people talking about it,” Dr Canavero said. “If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else. I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.”

One problem, of course: The donor has to be living.