Operating room nurses holding the human organs for transplant

Operating room nurses holding the human organs for transplant (ViewStock/Shutterstock)

AURORA, Colo. — A shocking study finds organ transplant recipients may end up with a lot more than just a new heart or kidney. According to researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the vast majority of these patients may end up inheriting the personality of their donor!

Imagine waking up from surgery not only with a new organ but also with a newfound love for chicken nuggets or suddenly feeling a rush of emotions that weren’t there before. Sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, right? Yet, for many organ transplant recipients, these changes are a real and bewildering experience.

Researchers set out to explore whether individuals who undergo organ transplants experience changes in their personalities and, if so, how common these changes are. They conducted a cross-sectional study involving 47 participants who received organ transplants, ranging from hearts to kidneys. The participants also completed an online survey about their experiences before and after their procedures.

An eye-opening 89 percent of respondents reported some form of personality change post-transplant. These changes varied widely from shifts in mood and temperament to alterations in their food preferences or levels of physical activity. Interestingly, the type of organ transplanted seemed to play less of a role than previously thought. Heart transplant recipients — often the focus of similar studies due to historical anecdotes linking heart transplants with profound personality shifts — reported generally similar changes to those receiving other organs.

Surgeons prepare a pig heart for transplant into a human patient.
An eye-opening 89% of organ transplant recipients reported some form of personality change post-transplant. (CREDIT: University of Maryland School of Medicine)

The changes reported did not just revolve around liking different foods or enjoying different hobbies. Some were profound, affecting emotional states, social behaviors, and even spiritual beliefs. While some recipients noticed a shift towards more positive outlooks and increased social interactions, others experienced challenges like anxiety, depression, or mood swings.

So, what could explain these mind-bending personality shifts? Researchers have several theories, including the “cellular memory” hypothesis.

The idea is that donated organs themselves could carry memories, personality traits, and personal preferences from the original donor in the form of “cellular memories.” These memories and traits could then get transferred to the organ recipient, almost like downloading a new operating system.

The heart has an intricate nervous system that some researchers have dubbed a “heart brain,” which could potentially store biographical data about the organ donor. However, cellular memories may also get transferred through more conventional processes like epigenetics, DNA, RNA, or proteins. In fact, one recipient described having realistic dreams of being shot point-blank after receiving the heart of a police officer killed in the line of duty.

“A few weeks after I got my heart, I began to have dreams. I would see a flash of light right in my face and my face gets real, real hot. It actually burns,” the recipient in the journal Transplantology.

Another young boy who received the heart of a deceased toddler suddenly refused to play with his beloved Power Rangers, the same toys his donor had been trying to reach when he fell out a window to his tragic death.

Of course, not all personality shifts may have such supernatural roots. Undergoing a major medical procedure like an organ transplant can significantly impact a person’s psyche, emotional state, and sense of identity. Some changes could simply represent psychological coping mechanisms to deal with post-surgical trauma, depression, or anxiety.

For example, recipients may subconsciously adopt new interests, habits, or personality traits as an unconscious way to assimilate the life and identity of their anonymous organ donor into their own evolving self-concept. These types of psychological adjustments and fantasies are common for recipients as they struggle to make sense of inheriting an organ from a total stranger.

“The finding that some patients experience fears about the possibility of personality changes following organ transplant is an issue that should be addressed with potential transplant recipients prior to undergoing transplant surgery, as such a discussion might reduce transplant surgery hesitancy and potentially improve post-transplant treatment compliance,” the researchers conclude.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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