If transferring memories from a snail to another sounds weird, that’s because it’s the first experiment of its kind. Researchers have successfully transferred a sea snail’s memory to another one by injecting RNA from a trained sea snail into an untrained one.
The study aimed to understand memory, how can researchers restore it or how to ease traumatic cases.
David Glanzman is the leader of the team of researchers and a biologist at the University of California (Los Angeles). He and his team are trying to know more about the engram (physical trace of memory storage).
Previous studies point out that, after amnesia, long-term memory can be restored by using a priming component. While this component hasn’t been yet discovered, the process includes epigenetic modification. As a result, researchers used RNA, which is part of the epigenetic modification and part of the process of forming long-term memory. So, Glanzman and his team researched if they can transfer long-term memory through the molecule.
Training Sea Snails
First, they had to train sea snails. They used small electric shocks to sea sails called Aplysia californica. The snails received five electric shock – one every 20 minutes, and after 24 hours they repeated the process. When tapping the snails, the ones in shock training contracted their bodies for almost 50 seconds to defend themselves. The snails that didn’t receive the training contracted for only a second.
Next, researchers extracted RNA from the trained and untrained snails. A group of untrained snails received RNA from the trained group and the second group received RNA from an untrained group.
Results showed that the untrained snails that received RNA from trained snails had the same response to taps as if they were shocked, and contracted for almost 40 seconds. The untrained snails that receive RNA from untrained donors showed no defensive response. Glanzman concludes:
“It’s as though we transferred the memory.”
More tests in petri dishes showed that the RNA from trained snails showed that their sensory neurons were more excited than the ones of the untrained snails.
Scientists believe that modifications to synapses enable memory storage, but Glanzman thinks that his study proves a new theory – neurons store memory:
“If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked.”
More studies will have to show if this experiment can work in humans. Biologists believe that the researchers might have transferred only response and not memory. But if the research proves to be right, Glanzman says:
“I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.