The Theory of Cellular Memories – Science or Pseudoscience
Written by Dr. Shreyjit Kaur
How vividly do you remember the incidents of your childhood days? Quite much, right? But is brain the only treasure-chest of memories in your body?
Well, according to the theory of cellular memories, memories and personality traits are not only stored in the brain but may also be stored in organs such as the heart. In 2009, Harvard Medical School defined cellular memories as “a sustained cellular response to a transient stimulus.” Essentially, when a cell is exposed to a specific stimulus, it will react in a certain manner, and this response will be repeated each time the stimulus is presented. The theory of cellular memory is quite controversial but is nonetheless very intriguing.
Personality changes after heart transplantation include accounts of recipients gaining the personality traits of their donor, which are classified as (1) changes in preferences, (2) changes in emotions and temperament, (3) changes in identity, and (4) memories from the donor’s life. Synthetic biologists are especially interested in transcriptional responses as a means of cellular memory because firstly, a lot of cellular information processing is performed through transcription; and secondly, the basic machinery for such biological behavior is very well-understood. The transfer of cellular memory is postulated to occur in the acquisition of donor personality attributes by recipients following heart transplantation, and four types of cellular memory are described: (1) epigenetic memory, (2) DNA memory, (3) RNA memory, and (4) protein memory. Other theories, such as memory transfer via intracardiac neurological memory and energetic memory, are also proposed.
One of the well-known cases describes a woman named Claire Sylvia who received a heart and lung transplant from an 18-year-old boy who died in a motorcycle accident in the 1970s. Sylvia developed cravings for beer and hamburgers, something which she never had before. Later, she contacted the family of her donor and was astounded to discover that he, too, enjoyed the same foods. She even wrote a book about her experience titled, ‘A Change of Heart: A Memoir’. Another extreme case involved an 8-year-old girl who was given the heart of a 10-year-old girl. Following her operation, she began to have nightmares about a man attempting to murder her. Her dreams were so vivid that she sought treatment from a psychiatrist who thought they were real. It was discovered that the donor had been murdered, and the recipient who had the nightmares described the man so vividly that the police were able to track him down and convict him of murder.
Scientists at Tufts University have been able to train planarian flatworms (Dugesia japonica) despite the lack of the brain and head. In some organisms, this could indicate that memory is stored in other regions of the body. A worm reduced to 1/279th of its original size can be regenerated in a few weeks and trained much more quickly to seek out light and open space for food, which is a bizarre behaviour for a flatworm. The exact mechanism of this memory retention remains unclear. There is a suggestion that traces of memory of the learned behaviour were stored outside the brain, and imprinted on the newly-regenerated brain through mechanisms not yet identified.
There has been a strong argument that the hypothesis of cellular memory relies on anecdotal evidence and a few very small retrospective studies of heart transplant patients; whose outcomes could be explained as merely coincidences, random chances and biased responses. According to Douglas Vincent, author of ‘Transplant Nation‘, unusual novel memories, thoughts, emotions, and preferences following an organ transplant are more indicative of immunosuppressant drugs and the stress of surgery on perception than legitimate memory transmission. (In other words, “as fictitious as a poor LSD or other psychotropic drug trip.”)
While there is still a lot we don’t know about the human body, as fascinating as the theory of cellular memories seems, it lacks the substantial backing of a comprehensive research study. But given the curiosity this theory brings to the table; it may lead to some more serious scientific investigations at some time in the future which may help to unfold the intricate mysteries of the human physiology.
(3) Liester MB. Personality changes following heart transplantation: The role of cellular memory. Med Hypotheses. 2020 Feb;135:109468. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2019.109468. Epub 2019 Oct 31. PMID: 31739081.