Space & Innovation

Human Head Transplant Patient to Use VR to Prep for New Body

Valery Spiridonov will use a virtual reality system to prepare for the shock of looking down and seeing someone else's body.

The world's first human head transplant is still on schedule for 2017, according to Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero who's been saying say for years that he will perform the procedure. The latest news is that Canavero's patient, 30 year-old Valery Spiridonov of Russia, will use a virtual reality system for several months before the surgery to prepare for the experience of controlling an entirely new body.

Canavero's claim that he can successfully perform a human head transplant has been the subject of skepticism since 2013. He claims to have performed the procedure on several cadavers, mice and even a monkey, though none of his work has appeared in any peer-reviewed journals, a fact that hasn't shaken his confidence. "I would say we have plenty of data to go on," Canavero told New Scientist in January this year. "It's important that people stop thinking this is impossible. This is absolutely possible and we're working towards it."

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His confidence has carried him to the point of obtaining VR technology to prepare Spiridonov for the procedure. The system was developed by Inventum Bioengineering Technologies out of Chicago and is designed specifically to help potential head transplant patients cope with the shock of living in someone else's body. It has tailored "experiences" where the patient will use full body movement to get familiar with voluntary motor functions.

According to Digital Trends, the VR system seems to be based on the HTC Vive headset and the Virtuix Omni. The Virtuix Omni utilizes a stationary brace so users can be locked in one place while they physically move around in virtual reality, but prevents them from running into walls. The system also has a cage-like structure with a stationary vest attached that allows the user to stand in one place.

Spiridonov's reason for wanting a new body is entirely understandable. He suffers from a genetic muscle-wasting condition called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease that has left him paralyzed and very weak. But the head transplant procedure and recovery process he will have to endure won't exactly be a walk in the park.

During surgery, Spiridonov's body and the donor body will be cooled to a very low temperature, then his neck and spinal cord will be cut with an exceptionally sharp knife to reduce any tissue damage. After being treated with polyethylene glycol, a chemical that preserves nerve cell membranes, his head will then be fused to the body of the donor. He will then remain in a drug-induced coma for about four months until healing is complete.

The sci-fi nature of the procedure doesn't seem to intimidate Spiridonov, who's managed to stay quite optimistic. "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, told Central European News in September last year. "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."

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Many neurologists remain cautious however, warning of the many risks and unknowns involved in such a procedure. "I would not wish this on anyone," Hunt Batjer, president of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, said last year. "I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death."

But Canavero insists that the VR system will prepare Spiridonov for adverse reactions. "This virtual reality system prepares the patient in the best possible way for a new world that he will be facing with his new body," Canavero said at the the annual Glasgow Neuro Conference on Friday. "A world in which he will be able to walk again."

Canavero began his journey to perform a human head transplant with the goal of helping people who are completely paralyzed. "This operation is aimed at restoring independence of severely disabled people," he told CEN last year. "Once I get it back I'll see what the life of a healthier person looks like."

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