‘Zombie’ Brain Cells Keep on Kicking After Death

‘Zombie’ Brain Cells Keep on Kicking After Death

While some brain cells disintegrate moments after we die, others actually grow, report researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago.

The findings, published in March 2021 in the journal Scientific Reports, could impact brain tissue research on certain neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. 

“Our discovery could lead to new treatments for these diseases,” says Jeffrey Loeb, MD, PhD, head of neurology and rehabilitation at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Medicine.

For the study, Loeb and his colleagues analyzed brain tissue that had been removed during standard surgical treatment from consenting patients. The researchers were trying to determine how genes behaved after a simulated death. 

Some cells deteriorated rapidly, while others remained stable. Still others, called glial cells, grew quickly for at least 24 hours after surgeons removed the tissue. Researchers saw that the glial cells, which are related to inflammation, grew long appendages for hours after death. They’ve dubbed the genes within the cells “zombie genes.”

Understanding how gene expression changes will help in developing treatments for neurological disorders. “Knowing this should improve dramatically how we work with human brain tissues,” Loeb says.