Are head transplants nearly possible?

This is cutting edge science that may or may not have happened. It’s interesting, controversial, possibly disturbing, and provides a great opportunity to discuss the scientific process (and how and why scientists collaborate and peer review their findings). All in all I think it’s a topic worth raising with pupils!

Sergio Canavero, a surgeon currently collaborating with other scientists in China and South Korea, claims that a successful head transplant will be possible in the next few years. The work of Canevero and his collaborators is to be published in the journals Surgery and CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics this year.

Canavero has gone against normal procedure and released information and results before the work is published in a peer-reviewed journal. This has caused irritation amongst other scientists, and as a result his claims are viewed with some scepticism.

Procedures that Canavero has described include successfully reconnecting severed spinal cord in mice, and transferring the head of a monkey to a new body (although they only connected the blood supply, not the spinal cord). Canavero alleges that, if the head is cooled sufficiently, a monkey can survive a head transplant without brain injury.

However, many in the scientific community are unimpressed with the way Canavero has released information before publishing for peer review. The videos and images he has released are still unverified.

New Scientist has an article on the latest information released by Canavero, including responses from the scientific community. Be warned, some may find the images/videos disturbing:

The Telegraph has a readable article, with a simple “How they did it” graphic that describes the process used to transplant the monkey head:

The Daily Mail article is a bit more sensationalist, but has some useful sections, such as a brief history of head transplants.

There are plenty of issues to discuss here with pupils, such as:

  • what are the ethical issues surrounding head transplants?
  • Why does the concept make so many people feel uncomfortable?
  • Do they differ significantly from conventional organ transplants?
  • Why do scientists publish their work in peer reviewed journals? What are the benefits?
  • Why do you think other scientists have been critical of the way Canavero has released information before the papers have been published for peer review?

Canavero’s research is definitely cutting edge, possibly dubious, and more than a little controversial. There is, however, a wealth of reliable cutting edge science happening out there that makes an excellent context for enthusing and teaching pupils.

The National Science Learning Network, in partnership with Research Councils UK, offer a number of exciting Cutting Edge Science courses.

All CPD which is part of the Bringing Cutting Edge Science into the Classroom programme qualifies for a bursary of up to £180 per day. Click here for further details:


Subject(s)Biology, Working scientifically, Science
Age11-14, 14-16, 16-19
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