Q. I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs about Stiff-Person Syndrome or SPS. Do you think cellular memory plays a role in hereditary illnesses? For example, SPS is not supposed to be hereditary and yet I know a family in which there are a number of cases of auto-immune disorders. Might cellular memory play a role in the reason some family members get a disease while others do not?

A. I am unaware of research indicating that Stiff-Person Syndrome itself is heritable. Nevertheless, you bring up a couple of cogent and interesting questions. Which disease, if any, a specific individual develops is thought to depend on a combination of genetic (genes and chromosomes) and epigenetic (environmental) factors. Sometimes one individual with a genetic mutation developed one condition while a relative with the same mutation might develop a different—although related—condition. Researchers reportedly have already seen some clues of overlapping genetic effects in identical twins. For example, one might have schizophrenia while the other has bipolar disorder, meaning that two different diagnoses may have the same underlying genetic risk factors. This could help explain the reason that some of these diagnoses seem to cluster in families. Since SPS is thought to involve an autoimmune process, it could make sense that some members in a given family system experience one or more types of auto-immune disorders.

Anecdotal information does suggest that cellular memory couple be implicated in what looks like “heritability,” in the sense that some conditions appear to surface more frequently in some family systems over others. Epigenetics has identified several things:

  1.  Cellular memory for lifestyle and behaviors can be encoded on protein strands in the cell nucleus and may be passed forward for likely 3-4 generations of one’s biological line; and one typically can expect to have this passed down to them from the 3-4 previous generations
  2. Something can happen that alters whether or not a specific gene is turned off or turned on and even how it is expressed, without any of its DNA being altered. There are also some DNA mutations, especially the DNA found in the mitochondria of the cells.
  3. An individual may have a predisposition to develop a specific condition but often there needs to be an ecology that allows it to develop and/or some cofactor (“every pathology has an ecology”)—figure that out and deal with it and it is amazing what the body can do.

So, my question would be, what types of lifestyle patterns have been exhibited in the past three to four generations of that family? For example, look for patterns related to smoking, alcohol, soft drinks (which are typically toxic to the brain and immune system, as is refined sugar), adequate sleep, balanced living, stress management style, positive or negative mindset, depression, other autoimmune conditions;  and anything that has been found to contribute to immune system misfunction. Dig to discover those patterns and how they are expressed or not expressed in individual members, especially in those who do develop an autoimmune illness.

Knowledge is power. Once some of those factors are known, an individual family member can assess their own behaviors and alter them toward health as appropriate. Will that always prevent everything? No, of course not. However, tweaking one’s lifestyle toward healthful balanced living can often reduce symptoms and sometimes prevent conditions from developing.


Transplant Recipients

Q. My kids told me that transplant recipients sometimes take on characteristics of their donors. Give me a break—that can’t be true, can it?

A. This is a phenomenon that has been seen occasional with heart and kidney transplants. In his book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, released in 1993, Deepak Chopra addressed cellular memory. At some level and in some circumstances it appears that when tissues are moved from one body to another, the cells from the first body carry memories into the second body.

In 1997, Claire Sylvia wrote a memoir entitled A Change of Heart that detailed her experiences after receiving a heart transplant from a young male donor. You might find it an interesting read. She interviewed Clive Backster, a pioneer in the development of lie detectors, who has gone on to perform experiments with plants and with human leukocytes. His experiments suggested that plants may be able to communicate with other life forms at a cellular level and may even experience the botanical equivalent of some human emotions). Human white blood cells typically exhibit an unmistakable reaction when their donor is subjected to specific emotional stimuli such as fear/anger/excitement, even when they are miles apart).