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Cellular Memory in Heart Transplants

Posted by lahar9jhadav on August 25, 2011

Knowing By Heart:

Cellular Memory in Heart Transplants


Kate Ruth Linton


Volume 2: September 2003

Throughout  history,  a  number  of  individuals  in  the  scientific  community  have  proven reluctant to accept or even acknowledge new concepts simply because they have not been able  to  fit  them  into  the  confines  of  their  limited  understanding  concerning  the  natural world.    In  the  realm  of  heart  transplantation  technology,  uncharted  and  controversial territory is beginning to emerge as a result of a concept known as cellular memory.   What is  cellular  memory,  particularly  in  relation  to  the  technology  of  heart  transplantation? And is cellular memory, in fact, a valid concept worthy of further investigation?   These are precisely the concerns/questions I intend to address today.

On  May  29,  1988,  a  woman  named  Claire  Sylvia  received  the  heart  of  an  18-year-old male  who  had  been  killed  in  a  motorcycle  accident.    Soon  after  the  operation,  Sylvia noticed some distinct changes in her attitudes, habits, and tastes.  She found herself acting more  masculine,  strutting  down  the  street  (which,  being  a  dancer,  was  not  her  usual manner of walking).  She began craving foods, such as green peppers and beer, which she had always disliked before.   Sylvia even began having recurring dreams about a mystery man named Tim L., who she had a feeling was her donor.

As  it  turns  out,  he  was.   Upon  meeting  the  “family  of  her  heart,”  as  she  put  it,  Sylvia discovered that her donor’s name was, in fact, Tim L., and that all the changes she had been  experiencing  in  her  attitudes,  tastes,  and  habits  closely  mirrored  that  of  Tim’s (Sylvia179).  Some members of the scientific community and of society, as a whole, may brush  this  off  as  being  merely  a  strange  coincidence.    However,  some  believe  that episodes such as this one offer evidence of a concept known as cellular memory, which is  beginning  to  gather  more  and  more  attention  in  the  scientific  community  as  the technology  of  heart  transplantation  improves  and  affects  more  people  throughout  the world (Bellecci 1).

Cellular  memory  is  defined  as  the  idea  that  the  cells  in  our  bodies  contain  information about our personalities, tastes, and histories (Carroll 1).   Evidence of this phenomenon has been found most prevalently in heart transplant recipients.   Though cellular memory may seem too far-fetched for some, several scientists and physicians have looked further into  it  as  a  valid  concept  and  have  come  up  with  various  theories  to  try  and  gain  more understanding of it.

Some have tried to gain a deeper understanding of cellular memory through the realm of chemistry.   One  such  scientist  is  Candace  Pert,  Ph.  D.,  who  studies  biochemistry.   Her findings  helped  support  one  belief  which  a  growing  number  of  scientists  have  now adopted:  “every cell in our body has its own ‘mind’…and if you transfer tissues from one body to another, the cells from the first body will carry memories into the second body” (Sylvia  221).    In  other  words,  these  scientists  believe  cellular  memory  does,  in  fact, exist…although they would probably prefer not to word their belief as such.

Candace  Pert  discovered  that  at  least  one  aspect  of  our  minds  has  been  distributed  to other organs throughout the human body.   She found that the brain and the body send messages to each other through short chains of amino acids known as neuropeptides and receptors.   These amino acid chains were previously known to exist exclusively in the brain.   However, Pert and her colleagues have found them in places all throughout the body, especially in major organs such as the heart (Pert 1).

Another  scientist  whose  attempts  to  grasp  the  concept  of  cellular  memory  were  made through chemical terms is Dr. Andrew Armour.  Armour was one of the early pioneers in neurocardiology, a new discipline in which the communicative relationship between the brain  and  heart  via  the  nervous  system  is  explored.    Recent  research  has  shown  that communication between the heart and brain is a “dynamic, ongoing, two-way dialogue, with  each  organ  continuously  influencing  the  other’s  function”  (HeartMath Institute 1). In 1991, Armour introduced the concept of a functional “heart brain.”  He discovered that the  heart  has  its  own  intrinsic  nervous  system  and  that  the  complexity  of  this  system  is great  enough  to  qualify  it  as  a  “little  brain”  in  its  own   right.   Thus,  Armour  calls  the heart’s intrinsic nervous system the “little brain in the heart.”

Basically,   the   heart’s   brain   is   an   intricate   network   of   several   types   of   neurons, transmitters,  proteins,  and  support  cells  that  allow  it  to  act  independent  of the “cranial brain—to  learn,  remember,  and  even  feel  and  sense”  (HeartMath  1).    Information  is translated  into  neurological  impulses  by  the  heart’s  nervous  system  and  sent  from  the heart to the brain through various pathways.   These impulses reach the medulla, located in  the  brain  stem,  where  they  have  a  regulatory  role  over  many  of  the  blood  vessels, glands and organs.  However, they also reach higher centers of the brain, where they may influence “perception, decision making and other cognitive processes” (HeartMath 2).

Armour describes in his book, Neurocardiology, that the heart’s intrinsic nervous system, which functions independently of the brain and nervous system at large, is what allows a heart transplant to work:   under normal circumstances, the  heart and brain communicate with each other via nerve fibers running through the spinal column.  In a heart transplant, however,  these  nerve  connections  are  severed  and  do  not  reconnect  for  an  extended period of time, if at all.   Fortunately, the transplanted heart is still able to function in its new  body  using  its  intact,  intrinsic  nervous  system  (HeartMath  2).     Certainly  the independent  quality  of  the  heart’s  “little  brain”  would  have  a  part  in  retaining  and recalling  cellular  memory,  regardless  of  whose  body  may  be  housing  it.   However,  as previously stated, the discipline of neurocardiology is relatively new, so theories such as this may not yet be firmly established in the scientific community.

Some  physicians  and  scientists  have  tried  to  gain  understanding  of  cellular  memory through psychological, metaphysical, and even supernatural terms.  One can see why they would  go  to  these  unconventional  lengths  in  order  to  try  and  explain  cellular  memory when  faced  with  such  disturbing  incidents  as  this:   several  years  ago,  an  eight-year-old girl received the heart of a ten-year-old girl who was murdered.   Shortly after receiving her  new  heart,  the  girl  began  having  recurring  nightmares  about  the  man  who  had murdered her donor.   She believed she knew who the murderer was.   Her mother finally brought her to a psychiatrist and after several sessions, the girl’s psychiatrist “could not deny the reality of what the child was telling her.”   They decided to call the police and, using  the  descriptions  from  the  little  girl,  they  found  the  murderer.   According  to  the psychiatrist, “the time, the weapon, the place, the clothes he wore, what the little girl he killed  had  said  to  him.  .  .everything  the  little  heart  transplant  recipient  reported  was completely accurate” (Pearsall 7).  Needless to say, the psychiatrist was eager to find any available explanation for this particular patient’s experience.

Several transplant surgeons have contributed to a theory for cellular memory essentially based on psychological and metaphysical conditions, which Dr. Paul Pearsall has pieced together.   Pearsall is a psychoneuroimmunologist, or a licensed psychologist who studies the relationship between the brain, immune system, and an individual’s life experiences. Pearsall  calls  this  theory the  “Lowered  Recall  Threshold”  (Pearsall  120).   Basically,  it suggests that the immunosuppressive drugs that transplant recipients must take are what bring  about  associations  to  donor  experiences  in  recipients.   Immunosuppressive  drugs minimize the chances of rejection of the new, foreign heart by suppressing the recipient’s immune system.   Scientists believe these drugs could also possibly act as psychotropic, meaning  “acting  on  the  mind”  (Merriam-Webster  1090),  stimulants  that  lower  the patient’s  “thresholds  for  accessibility”  and  enhance  their  perception,  allowing  them  to recall memories they may have long forgotten.   In other words, transplant recipients who claim to be having experiences with the cellular memories of their donors are actually just recalling their own memories of their own life experiences (Pearsall 120).   However, in instances  such  as  the  eight-year-old  girl’s  who  received  the  murdered  girl’s  heart,  this certainly does not seem to be the case.

James  Van  Praagh,  one  of  the  “foremost  spiritual  mediums  in  the  world”  (James  1), speculates that cellular memory is due to the presence of the donor’s spirit that has not yet moved on to its next home.   Praagh is a “survival evidence medium,” one that is able to make connections between the world of the living and the world of the dead by providing proof  of  life  after  death  through  detailed  messages.    In  his  own  words,  he  “feels  the emotions  and  personalities  of  the  deceased”  (James  1),  much  like  Whoopi  Goldberg  in the film,  Ghost.   Praagh points  out  that  donated  organs  often  come  from  young  people who  were  killed  in  unexpected  ways,  and  died  quickly.   Because  their  spirits  feel  they have not yet completed their time on earth, they may linger in whatever physical aspect of them is still being put to use; in this case, their donated heart (Sylvia 229).

An extension of this theory, developed by other spiritual mediums, suggests that because of the suddenness of many donors’ deaths, the donor’s spirit may not have yet realized that its body is dead.  Thus, the transplanted heart continues to function as if it were in its original  body,  not  realizing  that  its  original  owner  is  no  longer  there  (Pearsall  119). Theories such as these are indeed very intriguing and do seem to make sense for cellular memory.     However,  because  theories  involving  spiritual  phenomena  are  somewhat elusive and difficult to prove scientifically, many people are reluctant to accept them as truth.

Hospitals are very strict concerning the disclosure of donor information to recipients.  In order  to  protect  the  family  members  of  the  donor  as  well  as  the  recipient,  hospital authorities do not allow recipients to know anything about the person whose organ they have received (Sylvia 200).  Despite this control, many nurses claim that cellular memory is really just the patient piecing together information about the donor that they may have gathered  from  discussions  by  various  health-care  staff  who  were  around  them.   This  is called the “Hospital Grapevine Theory” (Pearsall 119).  Although  it is unlikely that these discussions  could  have  taken  place  in  the  patient’s  presence  while  he  or  she  was conscious  (because  of  the  hospital  policy  concerning  disclosure),  it  is  possible  that  the health-care staff talked about the donor while the patient was anesthetized.

One previously discussed heart transplant recipient, Claire Sylvia, thought this may have been the case with her cellular memory experiences.  However, once she contacted one of the physicians present in the operating room where she received the transplant, she found that the room had been absolutely silent. . .”the way Dr. Baldwin (the surgeon) likes it” (166).  At least for Sylvia’s case, the Hospital Grapevine theory does not seem to apply.

Of  course,  not  all  heart  transplant  recipients  experience  as  great  a  degree  of  cellular memory as Claire Sylvia, if any at all.   One such individual is Larry Slagle, one of my professor’s friends, kind enough to allow me to interview him.   On May 19, 1995, Larry, a then 60-year-old  man,  received  the  heart  of  a  33-year-old motorcyclist who had been killed while riding in Delaware (or so he vaguely remembers being told by the transplant coordinator).   When asked whether he or anyone else around him has noticed changes in his person since the operation, Larry jokingly replied that he now finds himself craving “beer  and  peppers”  all  the  time  (referring  to  Claire  Sylvia’s  experience  with  cellular memory:    after  her  operation  she  began  craving  beer  and  peppers,  like  her  donor). Apparently,  he  had  read  up  on  cellular  memory,  but  still  gave  “no  credence”  to  the theory.    There  were  some  changes  that  he  did  admit  to  though:    he  finds  that  he  has become  more  kind,  more  inclined  to  set  goals  for  himself  (like  bicycling  regularly,  an activity he enjoyed prior  to  his  operation),  and  he  now  has  a  tremendous  desire  to  feel useful.   Also,  despite  his  delight  at  being  alive,  he  mentioned  that  he  is  very  irritable. This  particular  change,  he  claims,  is  due  to  Pritazone,  one  of  many  immunosuppressive drugs  he  takes  daily.    His  explanation  for  the  other  changes  all  had  to  do  with  the psychology of being a transplant recipient:   the renewed kindness came out of being a beneficiary of “such kindness and skill,” the desire to feel useful came out of his attitude that “to get a gift like that and waste it would be a terrible thing,” and the goals he sets for himself  are  his  “answer  to  depression,”  his  way  of  going  on  with  life.   In  other  words, Larry  feels  he  has  not  experienced  any  degree  of  cellular  memory…or  “at  least  been aware of it,” as he chose to put it.

Although my interview with Larry did not yield the results I had hoped for (a compelling account  of  cellular  memory,  of  course),  he  did  pose  some  interesting  questions  that challenged  my  resolve  about  cellular  memory and really made me think.   One question that particularly struck me was:   If cellular memory is, in fact, a valid concept, then why doesn’t it occur more often than not?   Bruce Lipton, a former Stanford research scientist who  received  training  in  cellular  and  developmental  biology,  proposed  one  possible explanation   for   this   trend.      His   reason   implements   Candace   Pert’s   discovery   of neuropeptides in the heart, which function as keys that fit into specific types of receptors located on the surface of heart cells:

A  transplanted  heart  comes  with  the  donor’s  unique  set  of  self-receptors, which differ, naturally, from those of the recipient.   As a result, the recipient now possesses cells that respond  to  two  different  “identities.”   Not  every  recipient  will  sense that a set of cells within  their  body  is  now  responding  to  a  second  signal.    But  if  anyone  is  going  to experience this change, it might well be a dancer who is acutely aware of her own body, referring to Claire Sylvia.  Sylvia 222.

In  other  words,  instances  of  cellular  memory  in  heart  transplant  recipients  may  be relatively uncommon since the average transplant recipient most likely does not have a finely tuned awareness of his/her own body (refusal to take note of their body’s signals may actually be  what landed them in line for a transplant in the first place).   Thus many transplant recipients probably would not notice the, many times, subtle changes that may occur due to the second set of receptors now present in their body.

Although instances of cellular memory do seem to be the exception to the rule, one must not  allow  them  to  be  ruled  out  entirely.     In  the  words  of  famed  psychiatrist  and philosopher, William James, “If you wish to disprove the laws that all crows are black, it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white (Bellecci 2). These rare instances of cellular memory are medical white crows.

There may not be enough evidence to say one way or another whether cellular memory is valid.  However, judging from the theories and accounts of cellular memory discussed above, one can certainly see a need for further investigation of it.  Cellular memory may be baffling, and the scientific community may know very little about it.   But is that not the impetus behind most scientific research?   To explore the unknown and find answers to  the  unanswered?    I  believe  that  it  is.    And  for  that  reason,  I  believe  that  we,  as members of society, owe it to the generations to come to support research in this area. With further investigation of cellular memory, perhaps someday we will be able to really unlock  the  heart’s  mysteries  and  memories  and  truly  understand  what  the  statement, “knowing by heart,” means.

The extent to which cellular memory is currently being investigated reaches only as far as heart  research.    One  of  the  more  cutting-edge  heart  research  institutes  is  HeartMath, located in Boulder Creek, California.   Here, the relationship between the heart and brain, and  the  ways  in  which  this  relationship  affects  one’s  physical,  mental,  and  emotional health is explored.

Cellular memory has not yet entered the arena of serious investigation, though I believe it should.   Perhaps  scientists  could  work  to  find  a  cure  for  cellular  memory,  a  means  for suppressing memories in donor organs so that recipients would not have to undergo the emotional stress caused by cellular memory, in addition to the physical trauma that they have suffered during the operation.


1.  American Heart Association.  “Heart Transplantation.”  2002.  MedLine Plus.  20 Nov. 2002.  <www.nlm.nih.gov>. This website provides some statistics concerning heart transplantation and survival rates.

2.  Bellecci, Pauline M., MD. “The Heart Remembers.”  2002.  The Natural Connection. 12 Nov. 2002.  <http://www.thenaturalconnection.net&gt;.

3.  Carroll, Robert Todd.  “Cellular Memory.”  2002.  The Skeptics Dictionary.  Nov. 12 2002.  <http://skepdic.com/cellular.html&gt;.

4.  Hawthorne, Peter.  The Transplanted Heart.  Chicago:  Rand McNally & Company. 1968.

5.  Institute of HeartMath.  “The Intelligent Heart.”  1998.  10 Dec. 2002. <http://www.heartmath.org&gt;.

6.  James Van Praagh,  2003,  Spiritual Horizons, Inc.  January 25, 2003. <http://www.vanpraagh.com&gt;.

7.  Janis, Pam,  “Do Cells Remember?”  24 May 1998.  USA Weekend.com.  11 Nov. 2002.  <http://www.usaweekend.com&gt;.

8.  McGoon, Michael D., M.D.  Mayo Clinic Heart Book, New York,  William Morrow and Company, Inc.  1993.

9.  Merriam-Webster OnLine.  “Psychotropic.”  2003.  Merriam-Webster, Inc.  25 January 2003.  <http://www.m-w.com&gt;.

10.  Pearsall, Paul, The Heart’s Code, New York,  Broadway Books, 1998.

11.  Pert, Candace,  Why do we feel the way we feel?   The Seer.  3 Dec. 2002. <http://www.angelfire.com/hi/TheSeer/Pert.html&gt;.

12.  Sylvia, Claire, A Change of Heart, Boston:  Little, Brown and Company.  1997.


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