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Personality Change

Can an Organ Transplant Change Someone's Personality?

Increased confidence, or a newfound love of chicken nuggets.

Key points

  • Personality changes may occur following organ transplants.
  • In some cases, organ recipients report personality changes that parallel the personality of their donor.
  • Some organ recipients "remember" events from their donor's life.
  • Cellular memories stored outside the brain may transfer information from organ donors to recipients.
Ground Picture / Shutterstock
Source: Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Claire Sylvia was an accomplished dancer when, at the age of 45, she was diagnosed with a rare incurable condition known as primary pulmonary hypertension, PPH. This disorder, which involves high blood pressure in the lungs, leads to enlargement of the right side of the heart and debilitating symptoms such as trouble breathing and extreme fatigue.

Although medication sometimes ameliorates the symptoms, the only effective treatment for severe PPH is a heart-lung transplant. And for Claire, as her symptoms worsened, such a transplant became her only hope for survival.

Three years after her cardiologist pronounced her grim diagnosis, Claire received a phone call notifying her that a donor had been found. An 18-year-old male was brain-dead following a motorcycle accident and his family had consented to donating his organs. Claire was about to become the first person ever to receive a heart-lung transplant at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Claire’s transplant was unique not just because she was the first person in New England to undergo such an operation, but also because of the changes that occurred following her surgery.

During an interview with a reporter on her third post-operative day, she was asked, “Claire, now that you’ve had this miracle, what do you want to do more than anything else.” Her response surprised even her. “Actually, I’m dying for a beer right now.” Claire later wrote that she was “mortified” by the words that came out of her mouth. She felt this was a flippant response to a sincere question, but even worse, she didn’t like beer!

Later, she began wondering if perhaps some of her donor’s personality traits existed within her. She developed a new taste for foods she did not like before receiving her new organs. In particular, she now had a strong desire for green peppers, which she previously disliked. Now she was adding green peppers to a wide variety of dishes.

Also, once she was allowed to drive, she headed straight to Kentucky Fried Chicken to satisfy her craving for chicken nuggets. This made no sense to her because she never ate fast food before her transplant.

Claire also noticed other changes in her personality. She no longer felt lonely, and she felt more independent. She was more confident, assertive, and even aggressive.

One night, she dreamed about a man named Tim and in that dream, she knew Tim would be with her forever.

More than two years after her transplant, Claire read the obituary of an 18-year-old man who was killed in a motorcycle accident just before she received her new heart and lungs. His name was Tim. Claire called Tim’s family and scheduled a meeting so she could meet them.

When they met, Claire asked if Tim liked green peppers. His sister responded, “Are you kidding? He loved them, but what he really loved were chicken nuggets.”

More Evidence

Claire’s story would be amazing if it were the only story ever written describing personality changes in an organ recipient, ones that matched their donor’s personality. But it’s not.

Claire’s story was released in 1997; three years later, neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall published a paper describing 10 heart transplant recipients who experienced personality changes that paralleled the personalities of their donors. These parallels included changes in preferences for food, music, art, sex, recreation, and career. In addition, some recipients identified the names of their donors and recalled specific events from their donor’s lives.

One of Pearsall’s cases involved a 5-year-old boy who received the heart of a 3-year-old boy. The recipient related: “I gave the boy a name. He’s younger than me and I call him Timmy. He got hurt when he fell down. He likes Power Rangers a lot, I think, just like I used to. I don’t like them anymore though.”

The recipient’s father explained neither his son nor his parents knew the name of the donor or his age. Later they learned the donor’s name was Thomas, but his immediate family called him Tim. The recipient’s mother added they had learned Tim died after falling from a window ledge while reaching for a Power Ranger toy.

More recently, my colleagues and I published the results from our study that found 89 percent of organ transplant recipients described personality changes following the transplantation of a variety of organs.

Where Are Memories Stored?

Such stories and research findings seem implausible, particularly if we believe memories can only be stored in the brain. Plenty of research exists to support this view. The Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal suggested memories are stored in brain synapses in 1894, and the American Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield published research supporting this finding in 1937.

But could memories be stored in transplanted organs as well? Contemporary research suggests this may be possible. A previous review found memories can be stored in DNA, RNA, proteins, and epigenetic changes in cells outside the brain.

While these findings do not prove organ transplants cause personality changes, they do raise several questions: Where is memory stored? What types of memory could be stored in cells outside the brain? What factors contribute to personality? Can these factors be transferred with a donated organ?

More research is needed to investigate these questions and others. Such research would help organ transplant recipients better adjust to their new organs.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Pormezz/Shutterstock


Sylvia, Claire. A Change of Heart. 1997. Little, Brown and Company, New York.

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