Zombie Gene Brain Cells That Come Alive And Grow After Death Discovered By Researchers

by : Julia Banim on : 24 Mar 2021 14:44
Zombie Gene Brain Cells That Come Alive And Grow After Death Discovered By ResearchersOregon State University/Flickr/AMC

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have discovered ‘zombie brain cells’ that come alive and grow after death.

In a study that has recently been published in the journal Nature, researchers conducted gene expression analysis in fresh brain tissue, collected during routine brain surgery.


This tissue was analysed at multiple points after it had been removed, from 0 to 24 hours, as a means of simulating the post-mortem interval and death. Gene expression in certain cells was actually found to have increased after death, growing to ‘gargantuan proportions’.

cellsDr. Jeffrey Loeb/UIC

This gene expression was found within specific inflammatory cells called glial cells. These cells differ from nerve cells, and don’t directly participate in synaptic interactions and electrical signalling.

Instead, as per the book Neuroscience 2nd Edition, glial cells provide supportive housekeeping functions that ‘help define synaptic contacts and maintain the signalling abilities of neurons’.


While carrying out this study, UIC researchers discovered that glial cells grew and sprouted ‘long arm-like appendages for many hours after death’, challenging previously held assumptions about what happens to the brain after death.

The pattern of post-mortem changes in the glial cells was found to peak after approximately 12 hours, increasing at the same time that neuronal genes were ‘ramping down’.

brainJenny Fontaine/UIC

In a press release, Dr. Jeffrey Loeb, head of neurology and rehabilitation at UIC’s College of Medicine, said it wasn’t ‘too surprising’ to note the post-death enlargement of glial cells as they are ‘inflammatory’ and work to ‘clean things up after brain injuries like oxygen deprivation or stroke’.


However, Loeb, who was a corresponding author on the paper, noted that the implications of the discovery are indeed significant.

This is because the majority of research studies that use post-mortem human brain tissues to look for treatments and possible cures for conditions such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, currently don’t account for the possibility of post-mortem gene expression or cell activity.

Loeb explained:

Most studies assume that everything in the brain stops when the heart stops beating, but this is not so. Our findings will be needed to interpret research on human brain tissues. We just haven’t quantified these changes until now.

brainWikimedia Commons

According to Loeb:

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 and cellular changes, and reduce the post-mortem interval as much as possible to reduce the magnitude of these changes.

The good news from our findings is that we now know which genes and cell types are stable, which degrade, and which increase over time so that results from post-mortem brain studies can be better understood.

This study brings into question the widely held understanding that brain activity immediately stops after death or shortly afterwards, opening up interesting new possibilities for further research.


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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Science, brain, Death, Now, Research


EurekaAlert! and 2 others
  1. EurekaAlert!

    'Zombie' genes? Research shows some genes come to life in the brain after death

  2. Nature

    Selective time-dependent changes in activity and cell-specific gene expression in human postmortem brain

  3. Neuroscience 2nd Edition

    Neuroglial Cells