World’s First Head Transplant Involves… Virtual Reality?

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A man set to become the world’s first head transplant patient has scheduled the procedure for December 2017.

Valery Spiridonov, 30, was diagnosed with a genetic muscle-wasting condition called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, and volunteered for the procedure despite the risks involved, Central European News (CEN) reported.

“When I realized that I could participate in something really big and important, I had no doubt left in my mind and started to work in this direction,” Spiridonov, a Russian computer scientist, told CEN. “The only thing I feel is the sense of pleasant impatience, like I have been preparing for something important all my life and it is starting to happen.”

Dr. Sergio Canavero, an Italian neurosurgeon, will perform the procedure on Spiridonov. The procedure is expected to last up to 36 hours, and it will require Spiridonov’s head be cooled as well as the donor’s body to extend the period during which the cells can survive without oxygen, CEN reported.

“According to Canavero’s calculations, if everything goes to plan, two years is the time frame needed to verify all scientific calculations and plan the procedure’s details,” Spiridonov told CEN. “It isn’t a race. No doubt, the surgery will be done once the doctor and the experts are 99 percent sure of its success.”

Spiridonov joked that first thing he plans to do after the procedure is go on a vacation.

“But on a serious note, this operation is aimed at restoring independence of severely disabled people. Once I get it back I’ll see what the life of a healthier person looks like,” he said.

Virtual Reality
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Sergio Canavero has announced more details about his plans to carry out the world’s first human head transplant. At a conference in Glasgow, he unveiled the blade with which he will perform the operation, as well as the virtual reality system his patient will use to practice with beforehand.

The Italian neurosurgeon hopes to carry out the head transplant on Valery Spiridonov – a 31-year-old Russian man suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman disease – next year. Details of exactly when, where and how are not yet known.

However, Canavero unveiled what he called “another milestone” relating to the procedure at the Glasgow Neuro Conference.

At the event, he showcased the blade he will use, which has been designed by Farid Amirouche, professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

The diamond cutting blade has been designed to be extremely accurate, 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 minimising blood loss and maintaining nerve-structure integrity during surgery,” he told Ooom magazine.

Canavero added: “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.”

He also announced a newly developed virtual reality system created by Inventum Bioengineering Technologies that will help Spiridonov adjust to his new life before the operation takes place. This is to try to reduce the psychological impact of having his head attached to someone else’s body.

Kiratipath Iamsakul, co-founder of Inventum, said: “The patient will engage in virtual reality experiences that will involve activities requiring the use of bodily movements. 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.”

Canavero, along with researchers from Korea, China and US, are currently developing their method to successfully cut and reattach the spinal cord – a critical element of the operation. Earlier this year, the team reported success on an operation carried out on a dog. In a report by New Scientist, he said 90% of the dog’s spinal cord and been severed then re-attached. He also said the procedure had a 50% success rate on mice.

Canavero said more research is due to be published in the near future: “These results prove that a severed spinal cord can be reconstructed. There will be more studies to follow, also on brain-dead organ donors before organ-harvesting, but the current results look very promising that we are on the right path.”

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