Thursday, 24 October 2013

Transplanting Memories?

by Rhema Anderews

George Bernard Shaw once said, “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” In the realm of heart transplantation technology, none has posed greater uproar than the controversial concept of cellular memory.

Cellular memory is the notion that the brain is not the only organ capable of storing memories. In fact, all living cells possess “memory”. Evidence for this has been found predominantly in heart transplant patients. Studies on cellular memory from transplant patients are often conducted by scientists with the aid of the hospital system which forbids the recipient to know or communicate with the donor’s family with most cases without the mention of names.

On May 29, 1988, Claire Sylvia received both the heart and lung of an 18-year-old man killed in a motorcycle accident. After the surgery, Sylvia claimed an intense craving for beer, chicken nuggets and green peppers, all of which she never liked before. She began to assume a masculine walk (peculiar for the dancer), started swearing in conversations, and for no apparent reason took up motorcycle riding at dangerous speeds, which was totally out of character. Sylvia even started having recurring dreams of a mysterious man. In her book entitled “A Change of Heart”, she recounted a dream where she kissed a boy thought to be named Tim L. and inhaled him into her. Upon meeting the “family of her heart” as she put it, Sylvia learned the name of her donor was in fact Tim L., and all of the changes she experienced closely mirrored that of Tim L. who strangely at the point of death had chicken nuggets in his pockets. Sylvia’s story quickly captured media attention and soon after, many other transplant recipients came forward with similar testimonies.

The most striking example is that of an eight-year-old girl who received the heart of a ten year-old-girl. Post-surgery, she was consistently plagued with distressing dreams of an attacker and a girl being murdered. Her nightmares proved so vivid that even her psychiatrist believed them to be genuine memories. As it turns out, the donor was a murder victim and as a result of the recipient’s violent recurring dreams, she was able to describe the horrifying incident and the murderer to such great detail that the police eventually apprehended, arrested and convicted the killer.

Ongoing research has shown that neuropeptides and receptors previously known to exist exclusively in the brain have been discovered in places throughout the body, especially in major organs such as the heart. These neuropeptides are a means for the brain to communicate with other organs and for these organs to send feedback to the brain. However, little is known about whether these neuropeptides can store memory; due to the amount of peptides in the heart, there seems to be a strong correlation between the two. But if this were the case, then why don’t all patients go through this experience?

There is no solid evidence that the reports are nothing more than coincidence and fantasy. Even so, the stories are intriguing and we should expect some serious investigation into the matter in the near future. Until then let’s keep an open heart.