Organ transplants: a change of heart in more ways than one?

Will these surgeons be giving the transplant recipient more than just a new organ? Image credit: Global Panorama via Flickr

In 2006, a 63-year-old man with a very limited artistic ability underwent a heart transplant. Following the operation, the man was amazed to find that his artistic ability had dramatically increased. Nurses at the hospital were also astonished with his new talent. It was only after the man found out who the organ donor was that his remarkable ability began to make sense. The organ donor was a keen artist.

Is it possible that the skills of the donor were passed on to the recipient through the heart? It doesn’t seem possible; how can this sort of information be stored outside of the brain? Cellular memory theory could explain it!

What is cellular memory theory?

Cellular memory is the idea that memories and personality traits can be stored in any individual cells or in other organs, not just in the brain.

The case of the 63-year-old man was not the only one of its kind, and supporters of this theory draw on anecdotal evidence (such as that of Claire Sylvia who wrote a book about her experiences) and some published research.

One study followed 10 organ transplant recipients and found that there were two to five parallels with the donor’s history per transplant recipient. These parallels included changes in food, music, art, sexual, recreational, and career preferences.

A second study that interviewed 47 transplant recipients found that 6% of patients felt that their personalities had changed because of their new organ.

Science or pseudoscience?

If you’re not convinced by these studies, you’re not alone. Sceptics have highlighted the fact that both studies were very small, and especially in the case of the first study, the participants were chosen to prove the researchers’ bias.

1242 organ transplants were performed in Australia in 2015 alone, so the small number of reported cases of personality changes due to organ transplants in history worldwide raises doubts about the validity of cellular memory.

As well as this, none of the people advocating for cellular memory have provided any sound scientific explanation for how cellular memory would actually work in the body, and how memories and personality traits could be stored in organs other than the brain.

On the other hand, cellular memory sceptics provide several logical answers to why some people may think that they have taken on characteristics of their organ donors.

Possible explanations include side effects from the medications used in the surgery, or a response to the traumatic and life-threatening experience of having an organ transplant. The perceived personality changes could be coincidental, and the recipient has just drawn a parallel with the donor. The transplant recipients may also be subconsciously influenced by information they may have heard or been told while they were in hospital.

While there’s still a lot we don’t know about the human body, as interesting as cellular memory sounds, it is considered a pseudoscience. So no need to worry, if you’re on the Australian Organ Donor Register, there’s no real evidence that your personality, memories, or other characteristics will be passed on to your recipients!

10 Responses to “Organ transplants: a change of heart in more ways than one?”

  1. Caitlin Jay says:

    Thanks Angela! If the cellular memory theory is one day proven it will certainly create some interesting challenges! I’m sure people would want as much information as they can get on the donors, and some donors may be rejected by the recipients even if they badly need the organs! I saw a documentary a few months ago on criminals in America who are on death row and how some of them want to donate their organs after their death. The documentary interviewed some members of the public who are on transplant waiting lists and who said they’d be more than happen to take the criminals’ organs… but maybe not if cellular memory is a thing! But there is the other side of the coin that you mentioned, if really prominent and intelligent people donate their organs maybe they’ll be able to ‘live on’ through the recipients! It really makes you think!

  2. Caitlin Jay says:

    Thanks for reading Gorkem! What an interesting article, I’d never heard of any instances of sexuality or personality changes following surgery! I’m siding with the skeptics as well, and it just goes to show that many of the recipient/donor parallels may just be a coincidence and the changes could stem from the surgery itself!

  3. Caitlin Jay says:

    Thanks Mei! I was pretty proud of myself when I finally thought of that title hahaha. That music video is a perfect example of the cellular memory theory! There’s been heaps of fiction books and movies that revolve around the same idea, so it’s interesting that it’s finally being looked at in a ‘scientific’ (or pseudoscientific haha) way. I agree, it would be very interesting if some scientific evidence is found, I think there are lot’s of things that happen in our bodies that we don’t fully understand, so it will be very interesting to see what theories get proven or disproven in the future!

  4. Caitlin Jay says:

    Thanks Gen! I’m pretty skeptical as well, I think it’s a really interesting theory but until someone actually come up with a hypothesis for how it happens that can be tested (there’s a lot of hypotheses out there that involve psychic energies and that sort of thing), I don’t think it can really be taken seriously.

  5. Caitlin Jay says:

    Thanks for reading Elena!

    Also thanks for all that information on reverting cells to stem cells, it’s so interesting! When researching for this blog post I came across studies where the heads of flatworms were cut off, and when they regrew the worms appeared to remember some of the things that they’d previously learnt with their old brains! There was also another study where researchers recorded instances of amoebas learning, even though they’re only single-celled! I think there’s lots of potential for cells to remember things (like you pointed out), but there’s so much we don’t understand!

  6. Angela Li says:

    Interesting read! I wonder what’s going to happen if someone managed to transplant organs from geniuses like Einstein… if it really affects the patient that much that may change the world!!

  7. Gorkem says:

    This is very interesting. I think I’ll side with the skeptics thought. Occurrences by chance do happen. It’s like the lottery: the chance of winning is very very low, but someone nearly always wins the lottery. So it’s not unlikely that changes in parallel to the donor’s characteristics occur after surgery. Surgery is known to result in drastic changes, and people do look for explanations. Here’s a good example:

  8. Mei says:

    The “change of heart” in your title is perfect haha. This reminded me of a music video I watched a long time ago, where a guy took a girl hostage, stole her jewellery and shot her police officer boyfriend. The boyfriend was eventually taken off life support and his heart was given to – you guessed it – the guy who shot him who was suffering from heart problems. All these “memories” of the couple suddenly came to him and he eventually realised that he shot the boyfriend, and went to return the girl’s necklace.

    It would be interesting if some scientific evidence is found to support this cellular memory concept. I wrote a blog post about the feeling we get when the beat drops and in general, when there is a triggering stimuli. This sensory phenomenon was also thought to be pseudoscience but with more research going on now, it could potentially be a real thing! So cool.

  9. Gen says:

    Very interesting article Caitlin! I’m pretty skeptical about cellular memory from what I just read. After all the research you did, what do you personally think about it?

  10. Elena says:

    Love how you raised awareness for organ donations there 🙂 great stuff!

    While i cant answer your question about tissue memory for something as large as an organ, i can answer it on a cellular level!
    There is a recent technique where scientists are able to take any kind of cell sample from the body, and revert it to a stem cell state. The intension is that these are then re-differentiated to whatever that person needs.

    So for example, ill take a blood sample, collect all the white blood cells and turn them into stem cells. Ill then make them turn into hepatocytes and build them a new liver. As the cells came from the person there’s less risk of tissue rejection and its very simple to get that starting sample.

    The problem is these cells “remember” what they used to be, and while they might look and act like hepatocytes, they might also act like white blood cells and cause all sorts of problems. They think this is because of epigenetic changes and chromatin arrangements in the DNA, so certain genes being activated or masked.
    Tricky stuff to change

    Anywho hope that helped!