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An Italian neuroscientist who’s been making headlines for months by claiming he is about to perform a human head transplant baffled and disappointed a conference of surgeons Friday, saying he needed American help to pull it off.
Dr. Sergio Canavero has been saying he is on the verge of transplanting a live person’s head onto another body. He even has a volunteer: Valery Spiridonov, 30, a Russian computer scientist with a rare, genetic muscle-wasting disease called spinal muscular atrophy.
“I am asking you, Americans, to make your contribution."
Medical experts have been casting serious doubts on his claims, but the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons and International College of Surgeons invited Canavero to speak to their joint meeting in Annapolis.
"He’s stimulated the whole world," Dr. Raymond Dieter, a cardiothoracic surgeon from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and a past president of the U.S. chapter of the International College of Surgeons, told NBC News before the meeting.
"Is it possible to transplant my brain into your body? No," added Dieter.
"Technically, we can cut your head off. We can attach the skin. We can hook up the arteries. We can hook up the nerves. But can you hook up the brain and spinal tissue?"
Even if the body’s cooled down — a trick that helps people better survive open heart surgery, for instance — the brain only survives a few minutes without a blood supply, Dieter said.
"In three to five minutes, if we don’t have circulation back to your brain, you’re dead," Dieter said. "When you look inside the skull, it’s mush."
Nonetheless, he was happy to hear Canavero speak.
"I think it’s phenomenal," Dieter said. "If you don’t think out of the box, you can’t get anything done out of the box."
Dieter and about 75 other conference delegates were clearly hoping for an entertaining and possibly inspirational presentation.
They didn’t get it.
Canavero rambled for two and a half hours, struggling with a PowerPoint presentation that repeatedly crashed. He discussed medical journal papers from 1905 and a video of a dog that learned to walk after suffering a crushed spine.
Spiridonov sat to the side in a motorized chair, looking as puzzled as the rest of the audience.
“In three to five minutes, if we don’t have circulation back to your brain, you’re dead."
As Canavero veered into discussions of how Einstein thought nuclear fission impossible, audience members slipped out the back, clambering over camera equipment set up by media outlets from Britain and Russia.
As Canavero compared himself to Frankenstein — yes, he really did — attendees dozed off. "Watch out. I am the real one," Canavero said.
The secret to re-attaching a severed spine lies in building a nano-blade that can sever nerve fibers without crushing them even a little bit, then using the common compound polyethylene glycol to encourage nerve fibers to re-attach quickly, he said,
"Let's suspend all judgment," Canavero said. "What you have been taught is wrong."
It was only in the last 10 minutes of his soliloquy that Canavero admitted he did not really know how to pull off an actual head transplant.
"The main thing was the spinal cord. This is my contribution,” Canavero said.
He didn't address the question of re-establishing blood supply quickly enough to the brain, or of how to safely awaken the patient from a coma, even if the brain were to survive the procedure undamaged.
"I am asking you, Americans, to make your contribution," Canavero said. "I have a detailed plan to do it."
He suggested getting a billionaire to pay for it.
"I need your help and I need your assistance. Be Americans," he said.