Scientists Made Snails Remember Something That Never Happened to Them

RNA Moves a Memory From One Snail to Another

"It's as though we transferred the memory", said Glanzman, who is also a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute.

As it turned out, the RNA samples retained the memory of the electric shock, causing the untrained snails to exhibit a defense mechanism that lasted nearly as long as that of the donor snails.

If transferring memories from a snail to another sounds weird, that's because it's the first experiment of its kind. The study also provides understanding about the ways in which the brain stores memories and could be the next big thing in memory loss, dementia and related diseases.

In a new study, published in the journal eNeuro, scientists from the University of California Los Angeles claim to have succeeded in taking a simple form of memory from one sea snail and implanting it in another. But when snails were exposed to the RNA from a snail that had been zapped, they retracted their parapodia for longer periods after zaps.

In the next phase of its research, the team extracted RNA from the nervous systems of the snails that had been shocked and injected it into snails that had not been shocked.

For the experiment the team gave mild electric shocks to marine snail Aplysia californica.

Once the reflex action had been established in the trained snails, they were euthanised and their abdominal ganglia removed.

Cell Applications Inc./Visuals Unlimited Inc. via Getty Images
Cell Applications Inc./Visuals Unlimited Inc. via Getty Images

In a statement for The Guardian, Glanzman commented on the nature of the experiment, noting that the type of memories that were transplanted from one snail to another was crucial to the success of the procedure. The memory of the trained cells appeared to have been transferred to the untrained ones.

"These are marine snails and, when they are alarmed, they release a handsome purple ink to hide themselves from predators", Glanzman said in a statement.

Shock a snail often enough, and it will remember that it's been getting zapped a lot lately, and its parapodia will retract for longer and longer periods of time. He said that although several researchers would disagree, he is convinced that memories may remain even if the synapses come and go.

When touched lightly on the siphon, the neurons fire, retract the tissue, and contract the gill within the body cavity for a few seconds to protect it against attack.

The idea "seems quite radical as we don't have a specific mechanism for how it works in a non-synaptic manner", Bong-Kiun Kaang, a neuroscientist at Seoul National University who was not involved in the study, writes in an email to The Scientist.

But Professor Glanzman thinks memories are stored in the neurons, thousands of which make up each synapse. This has to mean that the memories are stored in some form within the nucleus.

In their paper, Glanzman and colleagues say their results raise many new questions about the mechanics of memory storage and the nature of the engram. It's emblematic of his perspective on how memory works.

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