“I write books, give talks, to start a discussion on head transplant and to explain how it may influence the lives of our children” says Sergio Canavero, the Italian surgeon, who has attracted a lot of attention in the press recently following his claims on the possibilities of performing head transplants in the near future. Canavero’s arguments feature prominently in his book Textbook of Cortical Brain Stimulation published by De Gruyter Open. In this exclusive interview, he discusses the implications of his predictions for humans and the ethical issues that they raise.
You are a neurosurgeon at Turin University Hospital, Italy. However, in 2003 you reduced your engagement in the hospital to a part time job and started the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, which has been headed by you to today. Could you tell me what TANG is and why you decided to start it?
Switching to part time gave me additional time to focus on my interests and I founded a think thank, with ties to several companies from the US and EU, and which is working on an array of projects, including cortical stimulation. The real reason for me to start this think thank was HEAVEN – my head transplantation initiative, that was my goal from the beginning.
I started to take interest in head transplant as a medical student, although working in a ties-free think tank really made a difference, because I could really concentrate on this problem. And this is why my work has sped up in the last 10 years.
What led you to research on the topic of neuromodulation?
The group is called the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, because neuromodulation (especially cortical stimulation) is a big part of head transplant. When you transfer one head (which is cooled down to 10ºC) to another body you have just one hour to reconnect blood vessels. We should think about it like about a moon landing, because the level of complexity and human engagement is similar. And when you think about a moon landing, you have to think about all the things that may go wrong.
In head transplant we have to consider, for example, the possibility of a stroke and we should have procedures, what to do in this case to regain lost abilities. Another risk that might be triggered by reconnection of the spinal cord is the central pain syndrome. And in my opinion, cortical stimulation, which is a kind of electric neuromodulation, is one of the answers here. I started to approach cortical stimulation in 1993, so quite long time ago, firstly to deal with pain and then to help with Parkinson disease and then I co-invented, together with a US company, cortical stimulation for stroke recovery promotion. All of these techniques might be useful in the treatment of patients after the head transplant.
At this moment, we have the technology to reconnect a served spinal cord. A successful operation like that was conducted in October on a Polish patient, by a Polish team working with a British biologist. The procedure they used was very complicated, much more complicated than the GEMINI method that I endorse. There was also one successful try of spinal cord fusion in 2005 in the US, that was not publicized, but anyway now we have evidence that this is possible. And in the case of head transplant we will use electric spinal cord stimulation, because electrical stimulation speeds up neural regeneration (which was anticipated by Marry Shelley in her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus). So again this is an issue connected to neuromodulation.
You have published the Textbook of Cortical Brain Stimulation with De Gruyter Open. What is the goal of this book?
This book is key to developing the New World Scenario, because the whole project is called New World. And this book is of course about clinical conditions, about pain, movement disorders, psychiatry, epilepsy and so on. In a way, I like to think of it as a continuation of the work of Jose Delgado, one of the great neuroscientists, who published the book Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilised Society. He claimed there that we are not in control of our passions (and he was not the first one who said that), and this is the reason behind Evil. And Delgado wanted to implant brains of millions of people with stimulating gadgets in order to control their minds. In the late 60s, this idea was revolutionary and gained criticism from several fronts. This was the time of strong opposition to psychosurgery which had been around for about 30 years . I simply want to extend Delgado’s vision into the future.
The chapter of the Textbook of Cortical Brain Stimulation dealing with psychiatric issues shows that we can help depressed patients. But our project is taking a longer view. In the Introduction, co-authored by my friend Dr Brown, we contemplate fixing the brain of psychopaths, who are about 10% of the human population, with cortical stimulation, which has zero risk of mortality, infections or brain damage; this is an ethical way of helping these people and society.
Cortical Brain Stimulation is easy to do, fast, every one can learn it, and is risk free, unlike Deep Brain Stimulation, therefore it might become a routine procedure. And this is a revolutionary aspect of this book. CBS could be used in cases where Deep Brain Stimulation is completely useless, like in stroke recovery. I also partially re-awoke a girl who was in a persistent vegetative state using this method. It has huge potential.
Who is the Textbook of Cortical Brain Stimulation written for?
This is a book for health professionals dealing with both brain and mind, so neurologists, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, neurorehabilitation specialists, including professionals treating patients in a vegetative state. I also hope this book will kickstart a discussion about mankind’s future.
It seems to me as though you do not consider yourself a researcher only working for development in a narrow field. Would it to be correct to say that you are aiming to change the human condition at its heart?
Yes, I am not normal!!! Let me tell you a little bit about how I see the future and what the role is of this book in my project. Is it fair that, having gone this far In technological progress, we should still accept death as a natural outcome? No. No one is happy to die. And I want to make us immortal. This is the final goal, but we have to go the Delgado way. You do not want Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao living forever. If you have the technology to make people immortal you also need a technology to change the mind of those who might be dangerous. And this is the New World Project.
When we transplant a brain from one body to another, biologists will push cloning forward. And cloning procedures will give us all new bodies, into which your old brain will be transferred . We know from animal studies that the blood (and the hormones) of young donors have the capacity to rejuvenate old organs. And this will be possible in this century.
Within a couple of years we will be able to transplant a head onto the body of a donor, for example a victim of an accident, with a dead brain but a healthy body. We as a society have to decide what to do with this technology. Will we decide to prolong the life of somebody like Albert Einstein, to give him another 40 years?
Your work on the possibility of performing head transplants brought you global media attention in 2013. News about your paper appeared in popular media, and not only in Italian and English press. Some news included negative opinions about the ethical aspects of your work. You are also mentioned in the Wikipedia article “Head transplant” and recently you gave a speech at TEDx. Do you think, that this popular coverage is helpful for you or not?
I think it was very good to start this debate because people should be apprised of the technologies at hand. My book is written for professionals, and that is why it is good that media articles make it as simple as it gets. Popularization is everything. Every scientist should also be a popularizer and should be trained to be so. Because people need to know where we are, and need to make decisions. I am saying: I have technology that might be used for good purposes, but can also be used for bad purposes. Imagine that you are a billionaire and you are dying, then you may have to kill a person to get a new, young body to perform a head transplant. And this must not happen. We have to develop this technology within ethical boundaries. But to do so, we need real ethical debate. And this is why I write books, give talks, etc., to start a discussion and to explain how a head transplant may influence the lives of our children.
This year I will launch HEAVEN in America. There are people in the US who are also involved in this project. And if we get approval from any ethical committee, then we will do the first head transplant within 2 years. And that is why we need a debate, because the ethical committee will approve this procedure only if people agree. Thus, a healthy debate among ethicists and the general public is good. As an aside, I also think that popularization is simply a duty of every scientists.
I could read several of your works for free online, and the Textbook of Cortical Brain Stimulation is published in open access. Is it important to you to publish your works in this way? And why? Do you prefer open access to the traditional publishing model?
Open access is very important because an access barrier is a barrier for science development. In countries where the economy limps on, people do not have access to conventional publications. Open access allows people to get into science and to contribute to science. I am happy to have all my works crucial to the New World Project published in open access. And I think it will also make it easier for me to explain my methods when everyone can download and read my works, because I do not have time to explain it every time from the beginning. Now I can say, google that and download the book from De Gruyter Online. Everyone can do it. I am really enthusiastic about that and I hope it will make an impact in the field.
If you were to give advice to beginning researchers in your field, what would you say is the most important when planning one’s career?
That impossible is a word that does not exist. What is the impossible? For me there is no such word. This is by the way what Napoleon Bonaparte told one of his generals efforting a frontal assault to enemy positions: Impossible n’est pas français!. Impossible is not a French word! Before 1903, when the Wright brothers flew with the first heavier-than-air airplane, people believed that a thing like that was simply misguided, and thus impossible: so, when they pulled off their stunt, nobody believed them. They had to make public demonstrations to turn people around. Same story for the moon landing: impossible. The history of science is the history of making impossible things possible. And when you start to do impossible things there will be people who oppose you. Albert Einstein said than nuclear fusion is impossible. So even geniuses may be wrong from time to time. This is what we should say to young people starting a career in science. Nothing is impossible. All your dreams may become true if you only find the right way.
Secondly I would like to tell you that the solution for spinal cord fusion was found in the literature from early XX century. And this is the literature that no one reads any more. But the past is prologue. Do not consider yourself to live in the best of times. There were bright people behind you who just got there before you and you just have to find out what they want to tell you by reading their papers. Of course you have to speak languages, and English is not enough. French, German, Spanish, and Chinese are important, and you have to expand your mind. And then everything will be possible. That is my advice.