The world of science these days is utterly fascinating. We’ve got scientists implanting false memories in people’s heads. We’ve got them discovering 42 brand spanking new “mystery chemicals” in humans that have never been found in people before. And now we’ve got scientists discovering “zombie genes” that come to life in the human brain after death.
What’s next? Is someone going to finally explain why dogs are always sniffing people’s crotches? Oh, right.
This “zombie” gene thing though. It’s a whole other ball of wax.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, claims that the common assumption that brain activity ceases immediately when a human being dies or shortly after may, in fact, be incorrect.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying samples of brain tissue collected during routine brain surgery discovered what they are calling “zombie” genes in the brain that sprout long, arm-like appendages (let’s just call them what they are – tentacles) well after the person had passed away.
These ‘zombie genes’ — those that increased expression after the post-mortem interval — were specific to one type of cell: inflammatory cells called glial cells. The researchers observed that glial cells grow and sprout long arm-like appendages for many hours after death.
“That glial cells enlarge after death isn’t too surprising given that they are inflammatory and their job is to clean things up after brain injuries like oxygen deprivation or stroke,” said Dr. Jeffrey Loeb, the John S. Garvin Professor and head of neurology and rehabilitation at the UIC College of Medicine and corresponding author on the paper.
So these “zombie” genes sprout tentacles and rummage around in the brain after the person is dead cleaning things up like some kind of brain janitor for several hours following the person’s death? Cool!
“Most studies assume that everything in the brain stops when the heart stops beating, but this is not so,” Loeb added. “Our findings will be needed to interpret research on human brain tissues. We just haven’t quantified these changes until now.”
“The good news from our findings is that we now know which genes and cell types are stable, which degrade, and which increase over time so that results from postmortem brain studies can be better understood.”
Loeb and colleagues are at a particular advantage when it comes to studying brain tissue. Loeb is director of the UI NeuroRepository, a bank of human brain tissues from patients with neurological disorders who have consented to having tissue collected and stored for research either after they die, or during standard of care surgery to treat disorders such as epilepsy. For example, during certain surgeries to treat epilepsy, epileptic brain tissue is removed to help eliminate seizures. Not all of the tissue is needed for pathological diagnosis, so some can be used for research. This is the tissue that Loeb and colleagues analyzed in their research.
This new discovery is important, according to Loeb, because “most research studies that use postmortem human brain tissues to find treatments and potential cures for disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, do not account for the post-mortem gene expression or cell activity.”
Perhaps now they will. Also very cool.