Dr. Marc Siegel: Here's why human head transplants will never work

Dr. Sergio Canavero, a neurosurgeon at the Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, is claiming that he is once again on the verge of a live human head transplant, this time in China – despite the fact that he has never achieved sustained or even limited success in animals.

There are many reasons not to take this claim seriously. In fact, it can be considered a mockery or affront to spinal cord injury victims everywhere, who eagerly await the latest news of new spinal cord stimulators, nerve growth factors and advances in robotics. We are definitely reaching an exciting era of enabling paralyzed patients to walk again.

But as far as head transplants go, think science fiction horror. The brain has millions of nerve endings that can’t simply be reattached. If this were possible, we would have seen successful attempts to bypass areas of damaged spinal cord a long time ago.

Any attempted head transplant is likely to cause tremendous pain, not to mention instant rejection that no amount of immunosuppressive drugs would be sufficient to overcome.

Canavero’s cruel and crude experiments bring to mind the horrible Nazi experiments on Auschwitz concentration camp inmates carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele. They should not be condoned in any way.

If nothing else, surgical research should never take place on humans unless it has first been successful in animals. We should be proud that America and Europe refuse to allow Canavero to conduct his “research” here.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine and a prominent organ transplant expert, agrees that Canavero “has not done the minimal research in animals to back up his preposterous claims about the feasibility of head transplants.”  

Caplan adds that “if a doctor promises the most severely disabled the hope of a cure on the basis of crackpot science he is at best cruel. If you promise longer life to those whose bodies are ravaged by disease on the basis of one surgery on corpses and animal experiments that have not worked you are an immoral shyster. That is what he is.”

Caplan concludes that “head transplants are fake news.” He adds that “anyone who promote such claims through press releases and press conferences and very little else … merits not headlines but only contempt and condemnation.”

Still, Canavero’s disturbingly unethical and unscientific experiments raise a question: Does a transplant alter personality and perspective?

In fact, cellular memory is a real concept even if a head transplant isn’t. There have been many reported cases of personality transfer from donor to recipient after a transplant. 

Former Vice President Dick Cheney told me in an interview in 2013 that he was very grateful for the heart he received transplanted from a donor. And he said that a person’s heart was not political – even if many liberals thought he had never had one.

The holiday season is a time for celebrating real medical advances in transplant surgery, not fake ones. Surgical miracles such as the first successful bilateral hand transplant on a child took place two years ago at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

At around the same time, the most extensive facial transplant ever performed was done at New York University Langone Medical Center

Now is a time to rejoice in these real accomplishments, not to celebrate a self-promoting, phony and cruel grandstander that our country’s scientific community has correctly rejected.

Marc Siegel, M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He has been a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008.