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Study reveals “Zombie genes” that grow and live in the brain for several hours after death

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Aakash Molpariya
Aakash started in Nov 2018 as a writer at Revyuh.com. Since joining, as writer, he is mainly responsible for Software, Science, programming, system administration and the Technology ecosystem, but due to his versatility he is used for everything possible. He writes about topics ranging from AI to hardware to games, stands in front of and behind the camera, creates creative product images and much more. He is a trained IT systems engineer and has studied computer science. By the way, he is enthusiastic about his own small projects in game development, hardware-handicraft, digital art, gaming and music. Email: aakash (at) revyuh (dot) com

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago has found that ‘zombie genes,’ also known as glial cells belong to inflammatory cells, instead of dying or stop working immediately after the death of a person, it increases activity and grows to gargantuan proportions.

Scientists observed the activity in gene expressions in freshly dead individual’s brain tissue and found them growing like appendages for several hours after death.

Although seeing genes come alive post-mortem may sound bizarre, experts say it is not a complete surprise because these cells are tasked with cleaning ‘things up after brain injuries like oxygen deprivation or stroke.’

While during post-mortem, genes coming alive may be a complete surprise, as experts say, it could be because cells are tasked with cleaning ‘things up after brain injuries like oxygen deprivation or stroke.’

As stated by Dr. Jeffrey Loeb, the John S. Garvin Professor and head of neurology and rehabilitation at the UIC College of Medicine: ‘Our findings will be needed to interpret research on human brain tissues. We just haven’t quantified these changes until now.’

The study, examined fresh brain tissue collected during a standard brain surgery of an individual with a neurological disorder, found that about 80 percent of the genes analyzed remained relatively stable for 24 hours — their expression didn’t change much 

The set of genes found to waken were those that provide basic cellular functions and are commonly used in research studies to show the quality of the tissue – also known as housekeeping genes.

Another group, known to be present in neurons and shown to be intricately involved in human brain activity such as memory, thinking and seizure activity, rapidly degraded in the hours after death. 

These genes are important to researchers studying disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, Loeb said.

A third group of genes — the ‘zombie genes’ — increased their activity at the same time the neuronal genes were ramping down. The pattern of post-mortem changes peaked at about 12 hours.

A previous study in 2016 found similar results in animals that showed more than 1,000 genes are active post-mortem, some of which only grind into gear 24 hours after the event. 

Researchers at the University of Washington turned to two model lab animals, mice and zebra fish, to look for the tell-tale signs of genetic activity. 

Analyzing the mRNA from the deceased mice and zebra fish, the team found evidence of activity in 1,063 genes.

In a series of two studies published online in biorxiv in 2016, they report that the majority of the genes kick into action half an hour after the animals die, but some only seemed to ramp up after 24 or even 48 hours.

For both animals, more than half of the active genes coded for proteins, while the others were regulatory genes – which show significant energy is still being used to keep the system orderly.

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