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#GOTscience: The Fact and Fiction of Head Transplants

A head transplant appears to figure in one of the subplots of "Game of Thrones," as well as the claims of a real-life Italian neurosurgeon.
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/ Source: NBC News

Political maneuvering and plain old hanky-panky have been taking center stage on "Game of Thrones," HBO's sword-and-sorcery series, but there's a Frankenstein tale taking place in the background: A discredited maester named Qyburn is doing something nefarious with a strongman's body in his medieval-style lab.

During last week's episode, Qyburn asked Queen Cersei if he could have the severed head of a dwarf who was killed by mistake. "It could prove useful for my work," he said. This week, a hulking body twitched beneath the sheet that was spread over the slab in Qyburn's lab.

As weird as it sounds, the idea of putting someone's head onto someone else's body has spread beyond the realm of novels, plays, films and TV shows. An Italian neurosurgeon named Sergio Canavero says he'll try connecting the head of a 30-year-old Russian man with a debilitating muscle condition to a donor's body in 2017.

Head transplants have been attempted before — with dogs in the 1950s, and with monkeys in the 1960s. There were myriad problems, ranging from tissue rejection to the difficulties of making spinal cord connections. But during a TEDx conference in Cyprus, Canavero claimed that his surgical technologies could solve those problems. "This is history, just like in the 'Frankenstein' novel," he said in the TEDx video clip.

Other researchers think Canavero's plans are as fictional as a "Frankenstein" novel — or a "Game of Thrones" episode. Canavero has even had to counter rumors that he's involved in a marketing ploy for a video game.

Will Canavero actually go through with a head transplant? Or should that more rightly be called a "body transplant"? And what the heck is Qyburn up to in King's Landing? We can point you to spoilers for "Game of Thrones," but when it comes to Canavero's tale, you'll just have to stay tuned.



— Alan Boyle

Got scientific questions about scenes from "Game of Thrones"? Flag them with the Twitter hashtag #GOTscience.