The magical organ that never rests and is never off duty is complicated to understand. Even more difficult is understanding what happens to it when a person is dead. While many studies tell us a lot about how the brains stop working slowly after death, scientists have found new genes that come to life after death.
Mortality is the fact that scares us all. The thought about what will happen to our family and friends after us is very heart-breaking. The question of what happens to our body after death is also one thing that everyone thinks about when talking about death. Very few people think about this as it is too horrendous and a very difficult subject to discuss with anyone.
Doctors can determine the time of death by the level of decomposition that the body has gone through. Many scientists have been trying to find more about the subject of death and the afterlife. Yes, many people believe in after-life as it brings peace of mind to them knowing that their loved ones are in a better place and devoid of all that troubled them while they were alive. While we can’t say much about the afterlife, we can certainly talk about what a body goes through after death. Scientists have now found a ‘zombie gene’ that comes to life in the brain after a person is dead. Don’t worry we are not about to face a zombie apocalypse situation.
The Cells That Come Alive
Usually, in the first 24-72 hours, all the organs of the body start to decompose as there is no oxygen going in or out of the body. While our organs do take some rest, the brain never has an off day or a second. The brain is always working on keeping the body alive and the bodily functions going. The only time that the brain stops working is when no oxygen reaches it. This happens only when a person is dead or in case of any clots in the veins. But a new study by the University of Illinois-Chicago reveals that there are some genes that become more active, almost like coming to life in the brain after death.
The scientists from UIC were studying gene expression in brain tissue that was collected during routine brain surgery. It was found that gene expression in some cells increased after death. These zombie cells were specific to one type of inflammatory cells called glial cells. These cells seemed to grow long, arm-like appendages even hours after death.
The Future of Possibilities
Dr Jeffrey Loeb, a John S. Garvin professor and the head of neurology and rehabilitation at the UIC College of Medicine and the other authors of the paper said that while enlarging of cells is not very surprising as organs have the tendency to bloat up after death, the implications of this discovery is significant.
Most of the studies about diseases like Alzheimer’s, Autism, and schizophrenia uses brain cells from dead specimens for treatment and possible cures for these brain diseases. Loeb and his team noted that the universal pattern of gene expression in fresh human brain cells are very different from any of the reports that are published on post-mortem brain gene expression from people who do not have neurological disorders or from people with neurological disorders.
The Simulated Death Experiment
Loeb said, “We decided to run a simulated death experiment by looking at the expression of all human genes, at times points from 0 to 24 hours, from a large block of recently collected brain tissues, which were allowed to sit at room temperature to replicate the post-mortem interval.”
Since Loeb is the director of the UI NeuroRepository, human brain tissue bank where patients with neurological disorders consent to having their tissues collected and stored for research purposes after their death or even during the course of their treatment like epilepsy. For example, while undergoing the surgery for epilepsy, the epileptic brain tissue is removed. The whole of the removed brain tissue isn’t needed for the pathological diagnosis, therefore, a part of it can be used for research purposes. This makes the work for Loeb and his colleagues much easier.
The Housekeeping Genes
The scientists found that 80% of the analysed genes remained stable for 24 hours, and the gene expression didn’t change much. These genes are referred to as housekeeping genes that provide basic cellular functions and are used to show the quality of the tissue when researching. Another group of genes that are responsible for memory, thinking and seizure activities, degenerate within hours of death and these are important for studying disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Whereas the third group of genes, the zombie genes, increased their activity at the same time as the other neuronal genes were ramping down. The glial “zombie” genes increased their activity after 12 hours on average. Breakthroughs like these play an important role in finding ways to cure degenerative brain diseases. Loeb said, “Our findings don’t mean that we should throw away human tissue research programs; it just means that researchers need to take into account these genetic cellular changed and reduce the post-mortem interval as much as possible to reduce the magnitude of these changes.”