Valery Spiridonov. Credit: Good Morning Britain

The surgeon behind the first human head transplant is using VR to prepare his patient

Wait, this is still happening?

BEC CREW
21 NOV 2016
 

In case you haven’t heard the rumblings over the past year or so, Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero is hell-bent on performing the world’s first human head transplant, and says the procedure will take place within the next 12 months.

He’s even got a willing participant - Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old Russian man with muscular atrophy - and Canavero has just announced that his patient will spend much of his preparation time inside a virtual reality machine to get him used to his new body.

 

If all of this is sounding to you like a terrible, horrible dream... we wish. 

Last year, when Spiridonov announced his willing participation and progressed the project from 'Crazy surgeon speaking in hypotheticals' to 'Oh crap, this is actually happening' levels of weird.

A few months later, a controversial Chinese surgeon who has been transplanting different heads on over 1,000 mice over the past couple of years signed on to help Canavero with the 36-hour operation.

Since the flurry of announcements last year, Canavero claims to have performed a head transplant on a monkey, and has successfully reconnected the severed spinal cords of mice.

Then, a couple of months ago, he announced that he’d even performed a similar procedure on a distressingly adorable dog, in this extremely NSFL paper describing how it was able to walk again after having its head reattached to its partially severed spinal cord.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has been met with a whole lot of skepticism and concern, but the success of the procedure isn’t the only thing on people’s minds.

 

As Hunt Batjer, president of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, said last year, if the procedure actually works, Spiridonov could experience something far worse than death.

"I would not wish this on anyone," he said. "I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death."

In other words, no one has ever, in the history of mankind, come close to understanding what living in someone else’s body would feel like.

As Christopher Hooton at The Independent put it, "[F]using a head with a separate body (including spinal cord, jugular vein etc) could result in a hitherto never experienced level and quality of insanity."

In an effort to get Spiridonov prepared for what he might experience when he wakes up with a brand new body, Canavero says he will be trained to deal with the "unexpected psychological reactions" using a new VR system.

As the Press Association reported over the weekend, the system was unveiled during the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow conference in Scotland on Friday.

"This virtual reality system prepares the patient in the best possible way for a new world that he will be facing with his new body," Canavero said. "A world in which he will be able to walk again."

Developed by Chicago-based tech firm, Inventum Bioengineering Technologies, the system is designed to help prospective head transplant patients deal with the shock of looking down and seeing someone else's body.

And let's just take a moment to appreciate how incredibly creepy their press shots are:

head-1Inventum Bioengineering Technologies

head-2Inventum Bioengineering Technologies

head-3Inventum Bioengineering Technologies

Also at the conference, Canavero said he's still figuring out where he will perform the procedure in late-2017, but says the UK is looking like the best fit at this stage:

"[I] had so much good feedback from Britain, from surgeons, that I do believe that it could get real traction if we push it hard here, so it is time for you here in Britain to start discussing all the ethical implications and if you are willing to see this happen here, because if the UK says no, then it will be somewhere else. But in Europe the UK really looks like the most promising place."

So it looks like this is going ahead whether we like it or not.

And something tells us those 12 months of VR aren't going to be nearly enough to prepare Spiridonov for what he's signed up to experience.

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