Nowadays, organ transplants have become a routine medical procedure. Nevertheless, there are still numerous myths and prejudices surrounding the procedure. The procedure is often hotly debated, particularly from an ethical perspective. A new study could now fuel this even further, as researchers have discovered a shocking side effect of the often life-saving surgery.

More than 140,000 organ transplants are performed worldwide every year. But now a research team from the University of Colorado School of Medicine has discovered that the medical intervention may have greater consequences for humans than previously thought. The operation should not only have an impact on the patient’s body, but also on their personality.

In a study with almost 50 participants, 89 percent said that after the medical procedure they noticed some serious differences in certain character traits or habits. Science has already put forward several theories in this regard, but most have so far only related to heart transplants. What’s special, however, is that the personality changes could also be observed in patients who had another organ inserted.

Only 23 people in the study had a heart transplant; the rest received another organ. Nevertheless, both groups reported changes in personality after surgery. Some of these can be very drastic, others only minor. The study states that participants reported “changes in food, music, art, sex, leisure and career preferences, experiencing new memories, euphoria, improved social and sexual adjustment, improved cognitive abilities, and spiritual or religious episodes.”

Most of these were rated as positive or neutral by the patients. However, some consequences of organ transplantation were also viewed as critical and disturbing. 30 to 50 percent of the participants who had a new heart inserted also complained of depression, anxiety and psychosis. After a heart transplant, many test subjects also report the sudden appearance of memories that obviously must have belonged to the organ donors.

For example, a 5-year-old boy received the heart of a 3-year-old boy. However, he was not informed of his donor’s age or cause of death. However, after the organ transplant, the little boy in the study gave a vivid description of his donor: “He’s a little kid. He’s a little brother, about half my age. He seriously injured himself when he fell. I think he really likes the Power Rangers, like I used to. But I don’t like her anymore.”

Numerous hypotheses already exist in research to explain personality changes after an organ transplant. Some of them say that most of them are purely psychological. This could be a placebo effect, in which the overwhelming joy of the new phase of life gives the person a more positive mood. Other transplant recipients, however, would suffer from feelings of guilt towards the deceased donors, which can also lead to depression and other psychological problems

However, the researchers in the study also provide a possible biochemical explanation for these surprising side effects of organ transplants. According to this, memories are supposed to be stored in the cells of the organs, which then pass them on to the recipients. Transmission via neurons could also be a possible cause. This particularly affects heart patients. Because the same neurotransmitters can be found in the brain and in the heart. “This complex system of neurons, called the ‘heart brain,’ is thought to store memories that could be transferred along with the heart during a transplant, altering the recipient’s personality.”

At the same time, the researchers state that a much larger study with more participants is necessary in order to be able to make clear statements about possible personality changes after an organ transplant. This is especially true with regard to patients who have had a body part other than the heart implanted. There is currently very little documented information about this.

Quelle: „Personality Changes Associated with Organ Transplants“ (Transplantology, 2024)

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