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Is it possible that recipients of organ transplants can suddenly begin to exhibit donor characteristics, even novel personality traits? Or is this phenomenon - even though well-documented in the popular press - aligned more with the realm of science fiction than science fact?
Given that each and every cell in the human body is genetically complete, is there any chance that the recipient - now with some of the donor's DNA, ultra-specific to each person - may change to think and act somewhat like the donor?
"In my opinion, there is a spectrum of how a donor organ affects the personality of a recipient, but none of those ways is linked to the transference of DNA, or to so-called cellular memory - not a proven scientific law - since the DNA inside an organ isn't expressed into the body," said David J. Reich, M.D., FACS, associate director, Transplantation and Hepatobiliary Surgery Program, and associate professor of the department of surgery at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.
(Cellular memory is a theory that since every cell in the body contains a complete set of genetic material, transplant recipients inherit DNA from their donors that determines, in part, how someone thinks, behaves and even eats.)
"For people who exhibit donor characteristics, the stories may be true and the cause may be scientific, but it hasn't been proven yet, and again, it isn't DNA-related but of a softer science - in an area that needs further study, including of the psycho-social aspects, as does all effects of the entire transplantation process," said Reich.
"What can happen because of a liver transplant, for example, is that recipients will acquire certain neurologic diseases, such as rabies and Familial Amyloidotic Polyneuropathy, a progressively devastating disease that causes paralysis, but that takes years to appear. Liver-transplant patients will acquire certain allergies also, such as one to peanuts; get certain infections, such as hepatitis; as well as inherit malignancies, and be left also with rare blood disorders, including AT3 deficiency that adversely affects clotting."
These conditions, unlike cellular memory, are biologically proven. Still, he said, "the donor-organ pool is extremely safe."
A transplant is an eye-opening, life-altering experience, continued Reich, that can affect how a recipient thinks and acts based on a range of emotions - from wanting to meet the donor's family to feeling sympathy for them and empathy for the donor; to honoring the donor by learning that person's likes and dislikes, and behaving in ways to keep that memory alive. Of course, knowing about the donor can also serve as a way to blame that person for personality changes, noted the doctor, such as being grumpy if that was a known trait.
"A transplant should be based solely on a physiological match and medical principles," he said.
And be aware that transplant recipients are prone to change, stated Reich, since they are under tremendous pressure, are more aware of the nature of spirituality in connection with the kind of surgery they've had, and also take medications that have neuro-psychiatric side effects. These by-products, in addition to stress and auto-suggestion, can influence recipient behavior.
Claims of organ recipients doing out-of-character things range from people who suddenly begin to crave foods they'd never eaten before to acting in new ways, such as going hiking when they never hiked before, or suddenly preferring a new kind of music.
For 59-year-old, heart-transplant recipient Loren Mays, a pharmacist from Dover, Del., who received a new heart at Temple University Hospital on June 15, 2004, new cravings included a sudden desire for candy bars and, most notably, hazelnut coffee. Turns out his donor - a 40-year-old nurse named Pauline from Reading, Pa. - loved coffee, especially hazelnut!
"Before the surgery, I never liked coffee at all, and I never ate dessert," remarked Mays. "After I began liking coffee, Pauline's daughter Vanessa told me her mom used to buy a big cup of hazelnut every morning on the way to work, and loved sweets."
Mays, who was born with a defective aortic valve and who had a near-death experience shortly before his surgery, related that during that experience he was told by someone - he called that someone "Being of Life" - that very few things in life aren't already planned for everyone.
"I don't know if it was God or not, but because of that I didn't worry about getting a new heart. When I did finally, I could feel another person's heart inside me, and for days afterwards, I cried and cried that someone had to die so I could live. It's a very spiritual experience. I know Pauline is watching over me," he said.
"The transplant coordinator says it's from all the medication, but I'm convinced it's more," he added.
Renowned professor Arthur L. Caplan - the Emanuel and Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics, and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania - said that there is "not any known biological, psychological or genetic reason that would transfer traits from vital organs; there is nothing in a heart, kidney and lung that transmits anything like this.
"But recipients are suggestible and highly grateful to the people who allowed them to live on, so they feel these things are real because primarily they don't want to take advantage of a tragedy that allowed them to live."
For the most part, Caplan said that he "strongly advocates organ transplants, since they do far more good than harm, especially for children."
But the professor strongly objected to the face transplant recently given to a French woman.
"It wasn't well-thought-out, and it raises questions about the publicity of it all, including money and movie deals, and it will open up overwhelming issues linked to assuming the identity and personality of the donor."
No, he stated, "the world isn't ready for face transplants."