Head Transplant Patients Will Use Virtual Reality To Prepare For New Body

Head transplant patients will use virtual reality to prepare for life with a new body, according to a report by Hannah Osborne in the International Business Times. The first human head transplant surgery is scheduled to take place sometime next year, though the exact date and location haven’t been disclosed yet.

The patient will be a 31-year-old Russian man named Valery Spiridonov who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease. The disease causes muscles and motor neurons to atrophy.

Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero will conduct the incredibly complex procedure. Canavero recently announced new developments in some of the tools he will be using to perform the transplant. Most notably, a new type of surgical knife and a new virtual reality program have been designed specifically in preparation for the surgery.

Canavero will employ a diamond cutting blade designed by Farid Amirouche, a professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering at the University of Illinois, according to Osborne. The blade is designed to be “extremely accurate,” and comes equipped with “a retractable and adjustable nerve holder, a rotating head, and reflective lights.”

“The adjustable head can also come equipped with a temperature-controlled vacuumed chamber for minimizing blood loss and maintaining nerve-structure integrity during surgery,” Osborne quotes Canavero as saying from an interview Ooom Magazine. “Amirouche has developed probably the sharpest and most precise blade in the world, which will allow a clear cut of the spinal cord with a minimal impact on the nerves, a cutting system that is innovative and very inventive. It is another milestone on the journey to make the first human head transplant possible.”

Inventum Bioengineering Technologies created the new virtual reality system that will help Spiridonov prepare for his life with a new body before he undergoes the surgery. Having his head transplanted onto someone else’s body is expected to have a severe psychological impact on Spiridonov, and the virtual reality system is intended to minimize the effects as much as possible.

“The patient will engage in virtual reality experiences that will involve activities requiring the use of bodily movements,” Kiratipath Iamsakul, a co-founder of Inventum, told the International Business Times. “These experiences are developed by referring to techniques used in conventional neurorehabilitation for the purpose of providing the most realistic sensations involved in voluntary motor functions. The patient will engage in virtual reality training several months before the commencement of the procedure in order to sufficiently prepare for the normalcy of life in a new body.”

There continues to be considerable skepticism about the outcome of the head transplant surgery, but Canavero has remained boldly optimistic throughout his research on what would be one of the biggest medical breakthroughs in history.

In January, he announced that he had successfully transplanted the head of a monkey.

“I would say we have plenty of data to go on,” Canavero told the New Scientist at the time, referring to the possibility of a human head transplant. “It’s important that people stop thinking this is impossible. This is absolutely possible and we’re working towards it.”

However, other researchers criticized Canavero for announcing his success and planning to move forward with human subjects before ample research of the results on the monkey head transplant had been conducted.

“It’s science through public relations,” Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University School of Medicine, told New Scientist. “When it gets published in a peer-reviewed journal I’ll be interested. I think the rest of it is BS.”

Caplan was seconded by Thomas Cochrane, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School’s Centre for Bioethics. Caplan considered Canavero’s “premature disclosure” to be “unorthodox,” according to New Scientist.

“It’s frowned upon for good reason,” he said. “It generates excitement before excitement is warranted. It distracts people from actual work that everyone can agree has a valid foundation.”

He, too, mentioned the sense of a public relations appeal that he felt Canavero’s announcement carried with it.

“As far as I can tell, that operation has mostly been about publicity rather than the production of good science,” Caplan said.

Regardless of the skepticism, it appears that Sergio Canavero is moving forward with his plans to be the first doctor to conduct a human head transplant, and his new diamond cutting knife and virtual reality system will be important factors in whatever success he and his patient may achieve.

[Featured Image by David Ramos/Getty Images]