The argument whether there is life after death has been raging since Plato and Aristotle. Theologians chimed in, and so did philosophers. The basis for the claim that there must be “something” that survives our physical demise is the concept of dualism; what it basically says is that there is something like a “life force” or a “soul” that resides in the brain, but is an independent entity—separate and apart from the physical body. Well, by now, brain science has amply demonstrated that all cognitive activities take place in a bunch of intermingled but highly coordinated neurons—that feelings reside in specific structures of the brain, not in the heart, and that human creativity and imagination is the result of cooperative interaction between disparate brain regions. And finally, we know that when neurons die, all functions dies with them.
Well, we need to hedge on the last statement. No, I am not resurrecting the concept of the soul surviving the death of the physical body. But, some important cells do survive for an astonishingly long time.
In a recent paper published in Nature Communications, French scientists have shown for the first time in humans and mice, the capacity of stem cells to adopt a dormant state when their environment becomes hostile, including several days after death. Remarkably, skeletal muscle stem cells can survive post mortem for seventeen days in humans and sixteen days in mice, well beyond the 1-2 days currently thought. The scientists were also able to show that these stem cells, once back in culture, retained their capacity to differentiate into perfectly functioning muscle cells.
How could the stem cells survive so long? By going into dormancy. They accomplish this feat by maintaining a minimal metabolic rate. Very similar to the way bears go into hibernation, only on a microscopic scale.
We have been using the astonishing survival properties of stem cells for quite a while. In patients with blood cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas, one therapeutic modality is to isolate stem cells from the bone marrow and store them in the laboratory. The bone marrow is then subjected to lethal doses of irradiation and then seeded with the preserved stem cells to reconstitute a brand new bone marrow, hopefully, free of cancer cells.
A new application of this research could be transplantation of post-mortem muscle stem cells into patients with muscular dystrophy or cardiac muscle into patients whose heart tissue had been ravaged by vascular disease and heart attacks.
What about neuronal stem cells? Can we preserve the creativity of a deceased artist? This sort of thing can be done only in science fiction books and movies. The brain is much more than a bunch of neurons. It is all about interactions, and those cannot be created in a laboratory dish. But what can be done is to transplant the stem cells into the brain of stroke victims or other neuronal destructive diseases such as ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s disease.
This gives ‘life-after-death’ a new meaning. Cells that by all rights should have died together with their owner stay alive for several days. And these after-death (post-mortem) cells confer a new lease on life on people that by all expectations should have been dead.