The Science Explorer Logo

Rama/Wikimedia Commons/

The world’s only head transplant surgeon graduates from mice to monkeys

Doctor Xiaoping Ren in China plans to perform the first-ever head transplant on a monkey this summer, possibly paving the way for the surgical research to make its way to humans.

| 3 min read

Doctor Xiaoping Ren in China plans to perform the first-ever head transplant on a monkey this summer, possibly paving the way for the surgical research to make its way to humans.

The future of surgery may create the possibility of something you probably never imagined possible— a head transplant to an entirely new body. In Harbin, China, Professor Xiaoping Ren has been performing head transplants on mice since his first successful operation in July, 2013. So far, the record time that a mouse has survived post-surgery is just one day, but he and his team are developing a way to sustain life.

His team includes a neurosurgeon, a cardiovascular expert, a spinal-cord regeneration specialist, and an immunologist. At first, his colleagues reportedly thought his research was a crazy idea, but eventually became excited by the challenge and opportunity to lead a breakthrough discovery in science.

The aim of a successful head transplant is to preserve the exact same thoughts, emotions, and memories of the recipient, but provide a new, working body. Our minds and consciousness, which are central to our identity, would be preserved by the operation.

How to perform a head transplant 

The actual head transplant requires a “clean trauma” made by a diamond-bladed knife to separate the head from the body. Next, blood vessels in the recipient head must be temporarily attached to the donor body in order to provide continuous oxygen flow.

Then, spinal nerves of the head and its new body are carefully connected and coated with stable molecules called polyethylene glycol, a substance that might improve the fusion of nerves. Finally, the head is stabilized using pins, screws, and plates.

Head transplants could help people who have certain types of cancer, paralysis, or muscle-wasting diseases in the body, but have brains that are untouched by illness. Successful transplants could save lives from the spread of cancer or give disabled people the chance to be mobile again.

The Controversy

However, even if head transplants overcome numerous obstacles, and become a safe, approved method of surgery, there will be many ethical questions to address. The organs in donor bodies could potentially be used to save multiple lives instead of just one, so what prioritizes someone in need of a head transplant over all of the other people in need?

There are also ethical concerns with the methods being used to test head transplants. So far over 1,000 mice have been used for the research, but Dr. Ren intends to operate on monkeys this summer, hoping to create the first head-transplanted primate that can live and breathe on its own. As the longest surviving mouse has only survived one day post-head transplant, it doesn’t seem like there’s much hope for a monkey.

Had Dr. Ren attempted to test head transplants on animals in the U.S., he would have been confronted with many more obstacles than in China. He studied in the U.S. for more than 15 years and held a faculty position at the University of Cincinnati College before making the decision to return to his hometown in northeast China to continue his research.

If the breakthrough in this futuristic surgery comes, China wants to be a part of it. One of China’s ultimate goals is to be a global science powerhouse, and this was clear in the fact that China’s investment in science research and technology development accounted for 18 percent of the world’s total spending last year. Dr. Ren says, “China right now, they want to go to the top. If you think there’s a really great benefit in research, China can put resources to support you.”

In the U.S., Ren would face difficult hurdles in both ethical permission and funding, but at Harbin Medical University, Dr. Ren won the approval of the ethics board and received government funding and university grants totaling about 10 million yuan, or $1.6 million USD. Around the world, his research has generated mixed reviews. Some doctors support the endeavor, claiming it could revolutionize the future of surgery, and others denounce the concept as appalling and ridiculous.

Dr. Ren declined to comment on when head transplants might be possible to test on humans, so it’s safe to assume that it won’t happen for a long time. Nevertheless, the endeavor is gaining momentum and stirring up a lot of controversy. An Italian neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, even claimed he might attempt the first human head transplant in 2017 on a recipient who has already volunteered to be the guinea pig.

Most researchers and surgeons hypothesize that head transplants won’t be a tool of medical care for the next few decades at the least, but the next generation of scientists may very well be the ones to standardize the practice.

Sergio Canaverod presented a TED Talk earlier this year on the subject of head transplants:

What is your standpoint on the controversial procedure? Share your thoughts below!

Related Content