Transplants can possibly alter personality

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published May 28, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Research published in Transplantology suggests that patients who receive transplants—particularly heart transplants—experience personality shifts.

  • The study involved surveying 47 participants, many of whom reported physical, emotional, and memory changes (more common in the heart transplant group). These changes, however, may not be directly related to the transplant itself. 

  • Experts say the study is flawed, while the authors note that more information is needed.

Could a patient with a heart transplant experience feelings or memories associated with their donor? New research published in Transplantology suggests that this could be the case.[] The authors say that patients—most often heart transplant recipients—have long reported personality shifts after receiving an organ transplant. However, patients who received kidney, liver, and other organ transplants have also reported these shifts.

The reported changes have been seen in both medical and nonmedical literature and include positive, neutral, and negative changes to interests—like “food, music, art, sex, recreation, and career”—as well as “the experience of new memories, feelings of euphoria, enhanced social and sexual adaptation, improved cognitive abilities, and spiritual or religious episodes.” 

More so, 30% to 50% of heart transplant recipients “experience emotional or affective issues, while others experience delirium, depression, anxiety, psychosis, and sexual dysfunction,” the authors write.

A closer look at the study

To assess the phenomenon, the authors conducted a cross-sectional survey of people who live in the United States and had undergone organ transplantation sometime during their lives. 47 participants (of whom 23 were heart transplant recipients and 24 were recipients of other organs) responded to 61 questions about demographics and self-reported personality changes, including changes in temperament and preferences for music, sports, religion, and colors), before, during, or after transplantation. 

The researchers also compared changes experienced after any organ transplantation vs heart transplantations in order to  “help determine if personality changes were isolated to heart transplant recipients.” A few participants had more than one organ transplant and were put into specific groups depending on which organs they’d received. About half received a heart transplant. Others received kidneys, lungs, and livers. Among the participants, the mean age was 61.9, with over 80% being Caucasian and 60% being retired. 

Among the heart transplant participants, a change in physical attributes was reported by 95.7%, compared with only 54.2% in the group that received other organs. The authors speculate that this change could be due to experiencing improved cardiac health after their transplant, resulting in more energy and increased tolerance of exercise.  

Excluding physical changes, 89.3% of the 47 participants reported personality changes after transplantation, with 36.2% of all participants reporting four or more changes. This was higher in the heart group. 

These changes included interest in sports (30.4% in the heart group vs 8.9% in the other); temperament (60.9% vs 50%); and food preferences (47.8% vs 33.3%). Changes in memories were also reported, although more frequently in the non–heart transplant group (20.8% vs 8.7%). The authors suggest that these changes could be related to “cellular memory from donors to recipients, although further studies are needed to confirm or disprove this hypothesis.” 

Emotional changes were reported almost equally across both groups (58.3% vs 52.2%). The authors suggest that these changes may derive from the effects of surgery However, the authors note, “It is also plausible that changes in emotions occur as a result of any organ being transplanted due to the transfer of cellular memory between donor and recipient.” 

The phenomenon is nothing new

This study wasn’t the first to explore the connection between transplantation and personality change. The authors also describe post-transplant personality shifts in other research—dating back decades—including:  

  • A Swedish study that examined personality changes in 35 heart and kidney transplant recipients.[] 

  • A Canadian study that looked at 27 adolescent heart transplant recipients And found that, after the procedure, these “individuals struggled to integrate their concepts of ‘self’ and ‘other’ (i.e., their donated organ) and several recipients experienced thoughts or questions about potentially acquiring characteristics of their donor via their donor’s heart.”[] 

  • An Austrian study that found that 21% of 47 heart transplant recipients reported “changes in their personality after receiving a new heart whereas 79% reported no such changes.”[]

  • A US study that explored psychiatric outcomes in 41 adults and two children who had undergone heart transplantation “found 68% of adults experienced affective disorders, 45% sexual dysfunction, 37% organic brain syndromes, and 25% family or marital problems.” The reported issues were chalked up to patients’ use of immunosuppressive drugs.[]

The study’s limitations

Although much of the Transplantology study is interesting, David Feifel, MD, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and Founder and Medical Director of Kadima Neuropsychiatry Institute, says the study has “many serious design weaknesses that severely limit the reliability of its findings.”

First, much more information is needed about the effect of organ transplantation on personality changes, as the authors note. Second, the way in which the researchers recruited participants may have led to biased and skewed results. 

“The researchers recruited organ transplant recipients for their study by advertising on social media and revealing explicitly that the purpose of the study was to explore personality changes after organ transplantation,” Dr. Feifel says. “That telegraphed recruiting approach likely produced what researchers call a selection bias because transplant recipients who believe they have undergone personality changes would be more likely to respond to the study advertisement. This almost certainly produced an inflated estimate of the prevalence of personality changes in organ transplantation.”

Mitchell B. Liester, MD, assistant clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and study author says that healthcare professionals should inform their patients about these changes. "Patients should be informed that some organ transplant recipients have reported personality changes following transplant surgery. The transplant team can include in their pre-operative education the possibility of personality changes, and they can use the existing research studies to describe the types of changes that have been reported," Dr. Liester says. "If these occur, they should discuss these changes with their transplant team or a qualified mental health professional."

As the authors note, “Further studies are needed to determine the etiological factors contributing to personality changes following organ transplantation and to determine if such changes are more common with specific types of organs. Future studies could benefit from the use of reliable and valid psychiatric scales.”[]

 What this means for you

According to research, patients commonly report emotional, physical, and memory changes after organ transplantation, especially after heart transplantation. If your patients ask about personality changes that could occur following transplantation, it’s important to relay that researchers still aren’t entirely sure of what’s beyond the changes reported. More information is still needed.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter