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science. medicine. health.

Memoirs of an Electron


Soul sojourn

Vivian Jiang

Fall 2005

   
electron translpant stimulus    An Egyptian belief articulates that an immortal soul exists within the human body, housing the unique character of each individual. If this were the case, then could it be possible for us to transfer an individual soul from one body to another through organ transplantation?

    In 1988, after having undergone a lung and heart trans- plant, a health-conscious dancer and choreographer reported that she was experiencing mysteriously uncontrollable urges for Kentucky Fried Chicken nuggets—the same food that was found in the donor’s pocket when he was killed.

    In the late 1980s, Thomas Budinger, MD, PhD, a professor of bioengineering and electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), also encountered a case of a transplant patient acting like the donor. This patient had received a liver transplant. “I was on a ski trip with my family in Squaw Valley when a mysterious person, knowing I was a transplant surgeon, knocked on the door of our cabin and asked if I would come look at a female liver transplant patient who seemed to be acting crazy.

    So I went, and when I got there the first thing I did was search through the patient’s purse. In her purse I discovered immunosuppressive drugs that had been prescribed by Thomas Starzel, an old friend. And so, I called Starzel and told him, ‘I have one of your patients here, and I was wondering what we could do because she’s acting schizophrenic.’ At that point Starzel said, ‘Oh my God, the patient isn’t schizophrenic, but the liver was from a schizophrenic boy.’”

    For decades now, it has been accepted that subconscious, behavioral memory is stored in the nervous system, mainly in the brain. In fact, experiments involving lesions of different sections of the brain have shown exactly where and how memory is stored. Scientists have observed through magnetic resonance imaging that the activity of neurons in the same area of the cerebellum increases as a conditioned behavior is developed. Such conditioned behaviors may range from simple skeletal muscle reflexes to classically conditioned responses to stimuli. In fact, scientists have found that a lesion of specific sites in the cerebellum can eliminate conditioned responses. Richard Thompson, PhD, professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Southern California, successfully tested this claim in an experiment during which he eradicated an eye-blinking reflex by lesion of the anterior cerebellar interpositus nucleus, one of the two main sections of the cerebellum involved in retention of conditioned behaviors.

    Numerous studies have also suggested a possible molecular mechanism of memory storage. In order for a memory to be made, an individual must first detect stimuli from his surroundings. This information is then encoded into short-term memory before being transformed into long-term memory through consolidation, a process involving the expression of genes and the synthesis of new proteins. The structural changes caused by the new proteins may, in turn, facilitate the stable storage of memories.

    Given the strong experimental support for such a localized mechanism of memory formation and storage, the idea that memory can be transmitted without actually transferring any part of a person’s brain seems completely fictitious. To Gunther Stent, PhD, professor of neurobiology at UC Berkeley, and many others, the idea that organ transplants can transfer such feelings as cravings for Kentucky Fried Chicken is ridiculous. Dr. Stent comments, “It might have been that the person just craved meat because the donor’s heart has that physiological need for a lot of meat, or maybe there were hormones in the hospital that triggered some craving for fried food, but a craving for KFC is just too specific…the heart is just a pump.” Yet, various independent reports of interpersonal memory transfer suggest that there may be something transferred during an organ transplantation besides the organ itself.


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