Will Human Head Transplants Cause Patients to Go Insane? Experts Weigh In

Plans for the world’s first head transplant are still in motion, but last month a group of experts expressed concerns on the operation, suggesting that just because the feat was possible did not mean it was practical. The concerns cover not just the physical obstacles of such a medical procedure, but also how the transplant may affect the patients psychologically.

According to the report, published on April 23 in Current Translational Reports, the psychological state of a head transplant recipient is truly unpredictable and upon receiving a completely new body, the recipient could very likely “decay into madness.”

Dr. Christopher Winfree, a neurosurgeon at New York–Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center told Newsweek he is aware of this concern and explained that it is built around the idea that our sense of self is connected to our bodies.

“The philosophy of self is, if you change the person’s body, does that change who they are?” said Winfree.

Winfree explained that perhaps the most famous example of this philosophical idea of self based on body is Franz Kafka’s 1915 Metamorphosis. In the story, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, descended into depression and eventually dies after he wakes up to find that he has transformed into a giant cockroach.

The head transplant operation is set to be led by Italian scientist Sergio Canavero and Chinese surgeon Xiaoping Ren, CNBC reported. A date for the operation is not set but the surgeons emphasized the procedure will still be completed and believe trial runs on cadavers are proof the science fiction operation can be done.

05_17_sergio Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero who hopes to perform the world's first human head transplant Russell Cheyne/Reuters

In the new report, scientists not affiliated with the controversial operation point out the many obstacles and complications associated with this planned procedure. In addition to the psychological risks, concerns range from the risk of immune system rejection to the sheer fact that, as of yet, we are unable to reconnect, repair and regenerate spinal cords—a seriously important step in this operation. 

Of course, to date there have been no head transplants in humans, so we cannot answer these questions. However, in the case of face transplants, which change a person’s outward appearance to the world, this does not seem to be the case. One report on the mental health of face transplant recipients found that most integrated their new face into their sense of self within a few weeks to months following the operation. Still, the new report questioned that a head transplant may create more confusion between body and identity than a face transplant would.

"Patients may indeed think differently about receiving a full body than patients getting individual body parts, and the consequences could be catastrophic," the report read. 

Winfree said that there would likely be some personality changes associated with a head transplant, but suggested they may not be severe. Instead, he argued that the benefits of the operation, which is saving a life, may override over these risks. If conducted, the procedure would be reserved only for patients with lethal diseases that destroyed their bodies while leaving their brains perfectly intact.

“People had ethical issues with organ transplants, but when a person needs it, I think a lot of that stuff takes the backseat,” said Winfree. “My take as a physician is, although this is kind of strange, you can consider this [a head transplant] to be a large organ transplant, like the liver, the heart, or any other extremity.”