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Heart Transplants, Personality Transplants?

The heart is not only a pump but a center of feeling, memory, and personality.

Key points

  • The heart is not just a pump; kidneys don’t just purify our blood; the lungs are more than breathing machines.
  • The heart, like the nervous system, possesses the properties of memory and adaptation.
  • The heart acts as a synchronizing force within the body, a key carrier of emotional information as well as other personality keys.
  • Sensitive transplant patients may evidence personality changes that parallel the experiences, likes, dislikes, and temperament of their donors.
The key to one's heart.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

Anecdotal though they may be, there are numerous accounts in popular books and magazines of heart transplant recipients experiencing distinct changes in personality and behavior following transplant surgery. When we consider the possibility of such personality changes—what in effect we are investigating is memory transfer. David Glanzman, at the University of California, Los Angeles, successfully transferred a memory from one marine snail to another by extracting from the nervous systems of those sensitized or trained (i.e., exposed to electrical shock) snail donors and injecting them into the body of untrained snail recipients.

In a similar vein, Shelley L. Berger at the University of Pennsylvania, experimenting with mice, discovered that after a conditioning and learning trial, a metabolic enzyme, acetyl-CoA synthetase 2, affected key memory genes epigenetically within the nucleus of neurons. In other words, RNA and an enzyme in the nucleus of neurons are likely involved in memory storage.

And of course, there is Shomrat and Levin’s research on planaria, which led them to conclude that traces of memory of the learned behavior are retained outside the brain. They suggested that this was by way of mechanisms that include the cytoskeleton, metabolic signaling circuits, and gene regulatory networks.

There are many descriptions in the popular press of heart transplant recipients taking on the personality traits of their donors. Perhaps the best-known account is that of Claire Sylvia, a former professional dancer. Claire received a heart from an 18-year-old boy who died in a motorcycle accident. After the surgery, she started craving beer and KFC fried chicken, stuff she had never liked before. “My daughter said I even walked like a man.” Wanting to understand the changes she was experiencing, she sought out the family of her donor—a teenaged boy who died in a motorcycle accident—and learned that these foods were his favorites.

About 10 years ago, I read a paper by Paul Pearsall and fellow researchers in which they discussed 10 cases of heart or heart-lung transplants. Pearsall had interviewed transplant recipients, their families, and the donor’s family, while Schwartz and Russek examined parallels between the donor and recipient. According to the authors, the recipients experienced profound changes in their lifestyles: “changes in food, music, art, sexual, recreational, and career preferences, as well as specific instances of perceptions of names and sensory experiences related to the donors.”

As we read these reports, we should keep in mind that the prevailing belief that memories are stored in the brain and nowhere else discourages transplant recipients from readily accepting changes in their personality that parallel those of the organ donor or to speak of these with their families, friends or physicians. Fear of being labeled as weird or crazy no doubt dampens many a heart recipient’s enthusiasm to share their experiences with others.

Heart transplant surgery is not simply a question of replacing a diseased organ with a healthy one. It is more than that as reports in the literature of heart transplants recipients confirm experiencing changes in their own personality which dovetail with those of their donor. Such personality changes, at least in some people, would be expected in light of our finding that information or memory is stored in body cells and tissues. Cardiac cells would be no exception to that, and if anything, more likely to carry personal data.


Chen, Shanping; Cai, Diancai; Glanzman. David L et al., (2014). Reinstatement of long-term memory following erasure of its behavioral and synaptic expression in Aplysia. eLife, 3, e03896.

Bédécarrats, A., Chen, S., & Glanzman, D. L. et al., (2018). RNA from trained Aplysia can induce an epigenetic engram for long-term sensitization in untrained Aplysia. Eneuro, 5(3) and Pearce K, Cai D, Roberts AC, et al., (2017). Role of protein synthesis and DNA methylation in the consolidation and maintenance of long-term memory in Aplysia. Elife; 6.

Shelley L. Berger in Public Release: University of Pennsylvania (31-MAY-2017). Metabolic enzyme fuels molecular machinery of memory. Penn study finds epigenetics key to laying down spatial memories in mouse brain, providing possible new neurological medications…

Shomrat, T., & Levin, M. (2013). An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planarians and its persistence through head regeneration. Journal of Experimental Biology, 216(20), 3799-3810.

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