“Zombie genes” challenge the definition of death

Even the WHO (World Health Organization) defines death as “the irreversible disappearance of brain activity”. Regarding brain activity, researchers have published a new study showing that not all genes die in death. On the contrary, some even seem more alive than ever: the “zombie genes”.

This new study appeared in the journal Scientific Reports. It turns out that certain neuronal genes show an activity peak after the brain has stopped. This intense activity would last up to 24 hours after death and the affected genes would even continue to receive cells.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago had access to human brain tissue freshly collected from people with epilepsy who had undergone surgery to relieve their seizures. They were then placed in a state of controlled death and scientists examined the activities of their genes within 24 hours of their “death”.

Zombie genes wake up after death and continue to regulate vital functions

It was observed that 80% of the genes analyzed showed stable activity for 24 hours. They were all genes that provided basic cellular functions. However, another group of genes in neurons had rapidly degraded within hours of death. These are the genes involved in memory, thinking, and seizure activity.

Zombie genes wake up after death and continue to regulate vital functions. Photo credit: Shutterstock / mybox

In contrast, the researchers observed a third group of genes that did not behave like the previous two at all. The activities of these genes increased in the hours after death and reached their peak activity 12 hours after death.

These are the zombie genes, and according to lead researcher Jeffrey Loeb, these genes are linked to inflammatory cells called glial cells. These zombie genes continue to transcribe proteins and regulate vital functions. According to the researchers, these cells grow and form long, arm-shaped limbs several hours after death.

The body tries to bring these zombie genes back to life

This post-death activity of certain cells is necessarily fascinating. Jeffrey Loeb explains, however, that this is no wonder, as glial cells “play an inflammatory role and it is their job to clean up the chaos after brain damage such as a lack of oxygen or a stroke”.

In other words, the body is fooled and still believes that the process of dying can be reversed by the awakening of inflammatory cells. An attempt to survive the body, which we may have even experienced in our lives since a study published in 2018, found that certain neurons were more active during sleep, causing mini-awakenings.

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