Interview with a Syrian scientist who participates in the first human head transplantation
In 1818, the British novelist Mary Shelley wrote the famous science fiction novel in which she narrated the story of a human being. The creature is fabricated from several bodies by the hero of the story, “Frankenstein,” who sought to find the “elixir of life” and the means to an eternal life. The result of his attempts was the transformation of this “human mutant” into a curse that killed its owner and ended up his life burning with fire.
The tragic end of Frankenstein’s events was not necessarily a response to the philosophical and scientific questions posed by the novel. What actually proves this is that, for more than two centuries, these questions have been the subject of a controversy about the ability of science to combine two or more bodies on the one hand, and about the philosophical scope of the desire to delve into intricate dialectical concepts that are hard to identify by the human cognition, such as death and identity, on the other hand.
However, the 21st century was the right time to announce the transformation of this theoretical, philosophical, and scientific debate into a realistic challenge adopted by the Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero, the so-called “Frankenstein of the modern era.” He is planning to separate the head of the young Russian man Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from chronic muscle paralysis and atrophy, through a surgical operation and to connect it to a dead body. Canavero expects that the young Russian man will be able to move his new body after he failed to control the one he will get rid of soon.
The operation, which will involve about 150 doctors, surgeons and scientists, will take place in December. Among the team that would participate in the operation, the Syrian scientist and researcher Qais Asfari would be present after years of preparation for this work.
Enab Baladi met the scientist Asfari. He holds a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from the University of London. Asfari followed the evolution of the idea and participated in the lectures which were organized on it. Therefore, he became part of the scientific team that will participate in the operation.
“Qais Nezar Asfari, who is born in 1983, is a Syrian scientist who lives in Britain.
He holds an MA in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Oxford
He is preparing to get a PHD degreein neuroethology from the Imperial University of London.
He is a lecturer at Cambridge University and he is part of a team that seeks to provide more scientific evidence for interpreting all aspects of the brain’sbehavior and phenomena and its interaction with the body within the so-called “artificial intelligence” development”
The Passion of the Idea
From the very first moment he heard about the operation in 2013, Asfari tried to find out more details about it. He attended several lectures which were delivered by the Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero. The latter delivered a lecture, in which Asfari participated as a lecturer, on the operation at Cambridge University. This allowed him to participate in the operation along with neurosurgeons and neuroscientists who became part of the event.
Asfari will participate in the supervision phase of the solutions used, and monitoring the brain and nerve cells’ activities after connecting the electrodes to the body. This phase would be carried out, after the head transplant phase, by the group of surgeons and members of the specialist medical staff.
Asfari considers the second stage, in which he will participate, as very important to him and his group, which consists of neuroscientists and neurobiology scientists, in their scientific research.
Previous Experiments on Animals
Asfari points out that about 150 scientists, doctors and surgeons will participate in the operation. “There are five major brain surgeons and neurosurgeons, including Dr. Canavero of course, and the most prominent surgeon who would complete the operation after him, Xiaoping Ren. He is a Chinese spinal cord specialist who has succeeded several times in exchanging mice heads with their bodies and other bodies,” added Asfari.
In 2002, the Chinese professor succeeded in a mice head transplantation operation. The operation focused on transplanting a head onto the body of another mouse next to its own head.
However, the first experiments on animals started originally before 2002. They date back to the beginning of the last century, when the American physiologist Charles Guthrie conducted his experiments on dogs. In addition, in the seventies of the last century, the neurosurgeon and professor of neurosurgery, Robert J. White, succeeded in transplanting a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body. The result of the surgery was that the monkey survived for a short time after the operation.
Details about the Operation
The first attempt ever to transplant the human head will continue during an operation which will be led by the surgeon, and will last for 36 hours, in condition that the duration of connecting the new head with the new body will not exceed one hour.
Concerning the details about the operation’s first phase, Asfari explains that “the recipient’s head and the donor body are cooled so that the brain can live without oxygen and the cells will not die. Afterwards, the tissue around the neck will be dissected. Then, before the spinal cord of each person is cut off, the main blood vessels will be connected using small and thin tubes”.
After that, the head will be transplanted onto the new body, where the two ends of the spinal cord will be smelted together using the Ethylene Glycol chemical substance. After hours of injections and observations, the fats will be stimulated to stick to the cell membranes. After that, the doctors will sew the muscles”.
According to Asfari, the second stage of the operation, is to “intentionally put the patient under a coma for about one month, so that the implanted electrodes would be able to regularly transmit the nerve signals during this period and stimulate the spinal cord, to interact with the body”.
Head or Body Transplantation?
In case the operation succeeds, Asfari says that the patient will speak with the same voice and move naturally using natural care and treatment for a year, so that the body can walk. It “is expected that the person would be able to move and adapt to the new body with a natural treatment for periods after the operation.”
The patient, who will get rid of his paralyzed body, and receive a new body, is the owner of the head. He will send his movement’s orders from his brain. So the operation is technically a “body-to-head transplantation,” but, the mainstream conception of this operation is “head transplantation”.
Asfari sees that the process is not only a medical achievement, but it is also a philosophical and sentimental one. He elaborates on his vision about this aspect saying that “this is what Canavero suffered until details about the operation were announced at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) in Maryland. Afterwards, this crazy man got this opportunity”.
“One has to take this step because, whether it will be successful or fail, it will open new horizons for us. We are about to witness a different third person with the head of a man whose body has died, and the body of a human being whose head has died. This dilemma strikes our conscience and our concepts of death, identity and awareness, adds Asfari”.
The adventure, as Asfari calls it, is the main means to develop science. He gives the discovery of the vaccine for smallpox that saved millions of people as an example. The scientist Edward Jenner injected his son with the vaccine and took an adventure that could kill the child. However, it saved him and saved millions of children around the world.
Asfari wonders: “How will a man achieve progress if there is no new adventure every day?” He demanded to give science a chance to achieve a future when “we would be able to save paralyzed people, the cancer and muscular dystrophy patients by transplanting their heads onto healthy bodies, instead of a present in which we only see heads cut off and hung on the city fences”.
Syria Needs Scientists
The young Syrian scientist, who has lived in the UK since his childhood, hopes to raise the level of education in Syria. He says to Enab Baladi: “I, and many Syrian scholars, dream of reestablishing the position of education and raising the level of science and scientific research with curricula that keep up with modern science. We dream… and hope that this dream will come true”.