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Can Cellular Memory Cause Transplant Recipients to Act Like Their Donors?

Posted Apr 08 2012 6:39am

I have been writing these blogs for almost five years.  All of them are related to organ and tissue transplants and they range from how alcohol and drugs affect your organs to eating disorders, post transplant depression, mandatory donation and the Vice President Cheney Heart Transplant.  None of them, though, have gotten anywhere near the response of the posts I’ve written about Cellular memory, the theory that certain cells in the body have memories of their own and that when transplanted into another person become the new person’s memories as well.

Personally I don’t  put much stock in the claims of cellular memory but a  lot of people do so who am I to say they are wrong especially when I get so many requests for more information on the subject … so here’s the latest I could dig up.

While many scientists will tell you that cellular memory is impossible there really isn’t very much science on the subject.  Studies have been small and rare so while there is a lot or scientific doubt there is no absolute proof that the phenomenon does not exist.

Most doctors attribute the sometimes seismic personality changes after a transplant to radical health improvements, heavy doses of anesthesia and antirejection medications and psychological factors.

Like others University of Arizona psychologist Gary Schwartz has little real evidience to back up his theory that since every cell in the body contains a complete set of genetic material, transplant patients inherit DNA from their donors that determines, in part, how a person thinks, behaves and even eats. “Hearts can have memory, as brains do,” says Schwartz. Most doctors, however, say that’s the stuff of the Sci-Fi Channel and note that Schwartz based his theory on a study of just 10 transplant patients. “There is no evidence of clinical findings to suggest that [cellular memory exists],” says Dr. Tracy Stevens, medical director of the cardiac transplant program at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. You can read more here,,20147267,00.html

While medical and other scientific researchers will tell you that a truly scientific study would take years among perhaps hundreds of people there are some unexplainable individual cases.  One of which is the story of Claire Sylvia who got a heart and lung transplant in the 1970s from an eighteen year old male who had died in a  motorcycle accident.  Ms. Sylvia knew oone of this information but claimed upon awakening that she had a new and intense craving for beer, chicken nuggets, and green peppers, all food she didn’t enjoy prior to the surgery. A change in food preferences is probably the most noted in heart transplant patients. Sylvia wrote a book about her experiences after learning the identity of her donor called A Change of Hear.  You can watch her video here

And…if the Claire Sylvia story is not enough, here is yet another about a young woman, Julie Shambra in England  who after suffering from diabetes for many years got a life saving transplant from a young man that changed her life and many of her habits and tastes.

The most stunning example of cellular memory was found in an eight year old girl who received the heart of a ten year old girl. The recipient was plagued after surgery with vivid nightmares about an attacker and a girl being murdered. After being brought to a psychiatrist her nightmares proved to be so vivid and real that the psychiatrist believed them to be genuine memories. As it turns out the ten year old whose heart she had just received was murdered and due to the recipients violent reoccurring dreams she was able to describe the events of that horrible encounter and the murderer so well that police soon apprehended, arrested, and convicted the killer.  Unfortunately I have been unable to find out where or when this happened so there is no real proof that the story is anything more than an urban myth.

But then there are these stories:

Bill Wohl was a hard-driving self-described type A executive until cardiac disease nearly killed him in 2000. A heart transplant at the University of Arizona medical center saved his life—and transformed it in ways he could never have imagined. Weeks after his operation, Wohl, now 58, heard a song on the radio by the British vocalist Sade. “I just started crying and rocking,” he recalls. Odd, since before the surgery, Wohl hadn’t heard of Sade and was not the type to mist up over a torch song. Later he contacted the family of organ donor Michael Brady, the 36-year-old Hollywood stuntman whose heart he had received, and made an intriguing discovery. Sade was one of Brady’s favorite singers. “It was,” says Wohl, “really, really freaky.”

And then there is Paul Oldam, a corporate executive in a Milwaukee law firm, received the heart of a 14-year-old boy who had been killed in a truck accident in 1993. On Oldam’s first post-surgery shopping trip, his wife, Peggy, was taken aback when he wandered into the candy aisle and started loading the basket with Snickers bars. “He never liked candy before that,” Peggy says other husband, now 70. Bill also became an avid outdoorsman, given to kayaking, cross-country skiing and cycling 25 miles at a stretch. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” says Peggy, 69, “if he wanted to try parachuting next year.”

How Cellular Memory Might Work

It is thought that cellular memory might be possible since the discovery that neuropeptides exist not only in the brain as once thought but in all the tissues of the body. These neuropeptides are a way for the brain to “speak” to other bodily organs and for the organs to rely information back. However it is unknown if these newly found circuits could indeed store memories as the brain does in different organs. Due to the amount of peptides in the heart this organ is seen to have special potential in the study of this phenomena. However many answers still remain. Why don’t all transplant recipients have these experiences? It’s been theorized this may be due to the fact not all of them are in tune with their body as some other individuals may be. Perhaps the explanation lies with the sensitivity of the individual.

According to a story in Hub Pages which is not exactly a respected medical journal there are three possible explanations for cellular memory

  • The Hospital Grapevine Theory: The hospital grapevine theory is the simplest alternate explanation, stating that patients may be influenced due to information they hear from nurses talking to each other or their surgeons while they are under anesthesia. Although it’s forbidden to tell a transplant recipients the identity of the donor or any personal information there’s no such rule that prevents hospital staff from talking amongst themselves. Could all these coincidences be a placebo effect given to the highly suggestible?
  • The Quantum Theory: this theory claims that the answers may lie in a world we are as of yet are very ill-equipped to prove, in the wonderfully strange world of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics tries to explain mathematically events that occur with atoms and the particles which may make up atoms. This is world where regular physics comes to die and can be used loosely to explain virtually anything that can’t be explained otherwise. It’s tempting but I’ll leave this one up to the mathematicians to toy with. As of yet I haven’t heard of any of them proposing this theory, it seems to be something thrown out there by laymen.
  • The Drug Theory: It is the body’s duty to protect itself from foreign objects and that is generally what it does when it receives organs that weren’t grown in it from conception. This is why patients have to receive immunosuppressant drugs to stop their own bodies from attacking the new organ. There have only been a small handful of cases of people who have lived without these drugs, and they have done so on their own against the advice of doctors. this theory states that these drugs can be the cause of the changes in personality. Perhaps in some strange way these drugs can be psychoactive as well as immunosuppressive. This theory probably chalks up the specific nature of the said changes in personality to coincidence.

There is no definitive evidence one way or another that cellular memory exists.  I can only speak for myself but I had a heart transplant almost five years ago and have absolutely no change in my personality or lifestyle at all.  I am more appreciative of life than ever before but I think that might be true of anyone who was dying and had their life saved by a total stranger.

So we’ll close with the now well-known line, “We report… you decide.

Bob Aronson is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s 1700 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the writer of these donation/transplantation blogs on Bob’s Newheart.  

You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.

 Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.

If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have a PowerPoint slide show for your use free and for use without permission.  Just go to and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions.  This is NOT a stand-alone show, it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound.

Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.

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