Organ transplants have saved countless numbers of lives, but one organ has been impossible to transplant: the brain. But a recent successful surgery on rats has raised hopes that this may soon be possible. In fact, it may be attempted on humans later this year.

Sergio Canavero is an Italian neurosurgeon who has been running tests for several years in anticipation of performing a head transplant. Many in the medical community thought Dr. Canavero was crazy. Some people even thought his claims were part of a viral marketing campaign for a video game, that’s how outrageous he seemed.

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Dr. Canavero, however, is dead serious about this transplant and thinks he’s on the right track. He recently performed a successful test on rats that provided encouragement for his research.

This experiment used two rats and one mouse. One small rat was the “donor” whose head was removed, the mouse was the “recipient” upon whom the rat’s head was affixed, and the other larger rat was the blood donor that kept blood flowing to the head to keep it alive during the transplant.

Dr. Canavero and his Chinese colleagues at Harbin Medical University, where the experiment was conducted, then used vascular grafts to connect the donor’s thoracic aorta and superior vena cava to the carotid artery and extracorporeal veins of the recipient.

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Newsweek

The researchers were able to keep the two-headed rat alive for 36 hours after surgery. The group called this a great success and proved that a head transplant on humans is possible.

While 36 hours isn’t a long period of time, the team knew the two-headed rat wasn’t equipped for long-term survival. The goal was to show that the tissue in the donor’s head could survive the transplant. According to researchers, no donor tissue was damaged during the surgery.

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CNET

Despite this successful transplant, some critics still believe that Dr. Canavero is years away from successfully transplanting a human head. They say that, on a conservative timeline, science is still about eight years away from having the tools it needs to successfully complete a head transplant.

Dr. Canavero feels he is much closer than that. In fact, he has some potential patients lined up to take part in the transplant. The first, a Russian man named Valery Spiridonov, volunteered to be the first human test subject. Mr. Spiridonov suffers from a rare disease that paralyzes him from the neck down.

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CBS News

According to some reports, however, this man has pulled out and a new Chinese volunteer has stepped up. It’s unclear if Mr. Spiridonov voluntarily pulled out or if it was easier to get approval for the surgery with a Chinese patient. Because the surgery will need to take place in China due to ethical concerns from European hospitals, it may have been easier to get approval from China by using a Chinese subject.

This successful head transplant involving rats has emboldened Dr. Canavero to push forward. He hopes to have everything ready to perform a human head transplant by the end of this year. While that’s an aggressive timeline, the doctor seems dead-set on reaching it.

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