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Professional seducer

THEO PANAYIDES meets a scientist who says the future is now and old heads will be transplanted onto younger bodies within a decade


Sergio Canavero bustles, grabbing papers, putting them in order. “This will be your scoop,” he promises. The papers are copies of emails, and what looks like an article. I read a title – ‘Frontiers in Neurology’ – and listen to him expostulate, talking fast in his Italian accent. “Outrageous!” “Unethical!” “OK, good, perfect.” I can hear music coming from somewhere up above us, and occasional bursts of applause.

We’re in the basement of the Rialto Theatre, in a dressing room reserved for the speakers at TEDx Limassol. Sergio is the final speaker, due to take the stage in a few hours; the title of his talk will be ‘Head Transplantation: The Future Is Now’. TEDx is a one-day event, and it’s only been open for a few hours, but everybody knows Sergio. The young volunteers all know him, and refer to him as ‘Sergio’. You can hear him coming down the stairs to the basement long before he actually appears, laughing loudly. He has blue eyes, a small grey beard and small round glasses. He talks in a jagged, staccato style, as if in the midst of a conversation with himself. Often – if he senses me feeling confused, or starting to ask a question – he’ll hold up a hand, as if to say: ‘Wait! Hear me out!’.

It’s too bad that my “scoop”, as he calls it, is presumably stale by now (TEDx was over a month ago), but it’s worth recounting the story anyway. Sergio sent an “opinion article” to Frontiers in Neurology, a well-regarded Swiss journal. The article was duly refereed, endorsed and accepted – but then, a few weeks later, Frontiers wrote back to say that an “executive decision” had been made “to perform further review of your paper”. This, he tells me, is unprecedented (not to mention “outrageous” and “unethical”) – and, even more unusually, the paper was finally rejected after having been initially accepted.

Sergio has no doubts about what happened: phone calls were made, and pressure applied behind the scenes. “This is Mafia,” he affirms – meaning not the Italian Mafia but the coterie of university academics whose well-funded research might be in danger if his ideas were accepted. The title of Sergio’s rejected article was ‘The Rationale of the “Gemini” Spinal Cord Fusion Protocol: Pushing the Science Forward’ – and spinal cord fusion is exactly what needs to work (he believes it can) in order to fulfil his great project, head transplantation. Meaning what? Meaning exactly what it sounds like, taking the head from one body and grafting it onto another. The correct term is actually cervo-somatic anastomosis, he explains: “You just connect the brain – the head – with a new soma, a new body.”

Why would you even want to do that? It’s “a medical procedure for a medical condition,” shrugs Sergio. The recipient might be someone with muscular dystrophy or some other degenerative illness, a man or woman with a healthy brain in a totally crippled body. The donor would be someone who’s been pronounced clinically dead, a dead brain in an otherwise healthy body. “So healthy goes with healthy,” he says cheerfully.

That’s one important function; but there’s more. “There is now the incredible opportunity to use this – once it will be perfected – as a life-extension device,” enthuses Sergio. Do a Google search for ‘Avatar Russian billionaire’, he adds, or just go to ‘Avatar’ is Dmitry Itskov, a Russian media tycoon “who wants to make us all immortal” by uploading the entire contents of our brains – including all the elements of memory and personality – into humanoid robots. Itskov wants to accomplish this by 2045, and wants to transplant a brain inside a cyborg by 2025; yet Sergio’s project (which is unconnected to Avatar) may be even more ambitious.

The problem with Avatar, he says, is that if you put an old brain in a mechanical body, “it stays old, nothing happens” – whereas with head transplantation “you will get a rejuvenation boost from the body donor, who generally is young”. Injecting young blood into older bodies triggers a “rejuvenation cascade,” he claims. Very soon, “my first trial on Alzheimer [sic] will begin. I will inject blood from young donors into people with the initial stages of Alzheimer”. Even if that doesn’t work, there’s a trump card in the offing: human cloning, which has been possible since 1998 and is becoming increasingly efficient. “If in this century cloning will be perfected – and it will be – then you and everybody else will get a new body, without even the risk of immunological rejection” – and, at least until we learn to create digital copies of our entire psyche, Sergio’s method is the only way.

“Next year, in June, I will be keynote speaker at the Congress of American Neurosurgeons and Orthopedic Surgeons,” he explains, “and we will lay out the future steps in order to do [the operation] in the US. Transplantation is coming – because the money is not much, you know. 10 million Euros is nothing, if you’ve heard about how much people pay soccer players! We need to find a place where an Ethics Committee approves the procedure, of course… This has been the hard part, trying to convince. But actually things have changed.” He reckons (or hopes) that approval will soon be forthcoming, then it’ll take about two years to organise a team of surgeons and create “a perfectly oiled machine” – but it’ll happen, sometime in the next decade. “Well before the time when Avatar will proceed with brain transplantation, we will have already performed it. This is what I believe.”

And who’ll be funding this project?

“Third parties,” he replies vaguely. “I already received offers, but I don’t like these offers very much”. I assume there are lots of millionaires lurking on the fringes of such undertakings with more money than morals, trying to out-Avatar Mr. Itskov.

Wouldn’t it be easier to get an academic position? Then he’d have access to funding for all his research.

“In Italy, I try and I failed. Why? Because university in Italy,” he pauses significantly, “is Mafia-ridden. What does it mean? If you are not Italian, probably you cannot understand that. But if you live in Italy, you certainly understand it easily. If you are not part of the clique, if you are not a nephew or a son… you know, the usual, how it works”. His own family (he was born in Turin 50 years ago) was “absolutely routine, nothing special,” he says – meaning the kind of ‘special’ that brings useful connections. His dad “sold apartments”, his mum was a housewife. He’s wanted to be a doctor since he was eight years old.

Did he also fail to crack academia for personal reasons, though? Is he perhaps too prickly for his own good?

“You are very smart. My problem is that I tend to be confrontational. OK.”

That’s easy to believe; this manic energy must explode when frustrated. Sergio’s an alpha male, and a bit of a hustler. He likes sports (he does a lot of swimming and biking) and martial arts, practising aikido and jiu-jitsu. And there’s another thing: probably the most surprising – and strangely endearing – aspect of his life appears if you search for his name on Amazon. There are his medical books, notably Central Pain Syndrome: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis and Management (more on this later) – but there’s something else as well, a tome with a nude female bottom on the cover. Its title? Donne Scoperte, translating as ‘Women Discovered’.

“I wrote an essay on how to bed down women,” he explains. “Yes. You can see it [on Amazon], because the cover speaks clearly”. He couldn’t find a publisher in English, one editor rather sniffily informing him that “We don’t publish books about hunting down women” – and you see that editor’s point if you read the Italian synopsis (“We learn to manage the brain and body of the woman for sexual purposes,” says one bit, admittedly in the Google translation), but the book isn’t about misogyny, it’s about seduction; it offers “techniques of persuasion”, points out Sergio. No surprise that such a driven man would view the eternal problem of getting a woman to say ‘yes’ in a similar light to the problem of persuading sceptics to accept outlandish futuristic ideas, such as head transplantation.

Both are part of his character, the medical researcher and the professional seducer (of journalists, and TEDx audiences, as well as women). He met his wife in a park, while indulging in what he calls “girl-hunting”. Seven years earlier, in the same park, doing much the same thing, he’d “worked out the problem” of central pain syndrome (hence the book on Amazon), a neurological condition that might’ve wrecked his project had it not been resolved. Half his brain was on girls that day, the other half on science – “just like Kekulé with the benzene structure,” he adds mysteriously (August Kekulé was a 19th-century chemist who discovered the structure of benzene, apparently while relaxed and half-dozing). The answer just came to him, he says, in “a flash of inspiration”; he’d read a paper years before, about the dialogue in the brain between cortex and thalamus, and another paper more recently, on the way central pain syndrome works. Suddenly the two came together, he could see the connection: “Bingo!” he proclaims, clapping his hands – and the TEDx audience upstairs chooses that particular instant to burst into loud applause. Sergio laughs and rocks in his chair, enchanted by the coincidence.

A dry medical mind might not have been so delighted – it was, after all, just a coincidence – but there’s nothing dry about Sergio Canavero. Even on the big questions, like the great debate around Consciousness, his ideas are closer to the mystic than the materialist – even while disavowing any allegiance to God, or the Church, or any idea of the soul (“‘Soul’ is a term that science does not even consider to exist”). Also on that Amazon page is an e-book titled Immortal: Why Consciousness Is Not in the Brain – and that’s his scientific belief, that our brain merely filters consciousness rather than generating it.

After all, he asks, how can mere cells produce “an emotion, or self-awareness? If you explain that to me…” he pauses, as if expecting me to start talking about neurons and electrical signals, “fine. But no-one, NO-ONE, no single scientist on the face of the Earth has ever explained that. In fact, it is called the ‘hard problem of consciousness’.”

For the layman, what he’s saying is simple: if consciousness – our perception of the world – doesn’t come from the brain, that means it doesn’t end when the brain dies. “So I infer that there is life after death. ‘Life after death’ immediately conjures up that you are still eating, you are still having sex” – he shrugs grandly – “that we don’t know. We can’t know. But it’s already something if I tell you that when you die, you are not gonna die”. Head transplantation will prove the materialists wrong, he believes – because the recipient’s head will be “detached, cold and bloodless” before the operation (“Dead. Not dead, more! Super-dead!”), yet Sergio fully expects that the subject, when he or she reawakens, will report some memory of what happened, like patients who report near-death experiences. “When that happens, there is no way the materialist viewpoint survives!”

What’s it like to be inside Sergio’s own head, where exalted ideas meet resentments and enmities in a stew of furious energy? I don’t know, and can’t even imagine. “Wait. I know it’s hard. Follow me,” he says at one point, holding up a hand, when I’m struggling to grasp some arcane medical distinction – and there’s no way of knowing if he’s right or wrong about grafting heads on bodies, or the problem of consciousness, or even the best way to pick up girls. All you can really do is follow him, or else dismiss him as a crank.

“I’m like Pasteur,” he muses. “Pasteur, when he came out with germ theory, was initially considered a complete kook. Mad like a bat. OK? It was only through his insistence, his confrontational skills, that he overcame the system”. If you’re doubted, keep trying; if a journal rejects you, expose them in public. “I tend to be confrontational, because in this world you have to be confrontational. I’m lucky I was born like this,” he tells me – then prepares to regale Limassol with talk of severed heads on foreign bodies. The future is now.

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