To most people, a memory transplant may sound like a science fiction trope at best.
So, it's impressive that researchers from UCLA were able to transfer memories of being shocked between marine snails. Sticking electrodes in the snail's tail and shocking it makes this defensive response last longer, tens of seconds, and sometimes up to nearly a minute. But scientists have been studying sea snails for a long time, and they know an very bad lot about how the organisms learn.
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Memories can be transferred between organisms by extracting ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a trained animal and injecting it into an untrained animal, as demonstrated in a study of sea snails published in eNeuro. These shocks were said to enhance the withdrawal reflex of the snail, a defensive contraction it displays to protect itself from a potential threat. Moreover, a specific cellular adjustment that underlies sensitization in Aplysia, sensory neuron hyperexcitability, can be reproduced by exposing sensory neurons in vitro to RNA from trained animals. The snails had been "sensitised" to the shock.
Remarkably, the scientists found that the seven that received the RNA from snails that were given the shocks behaved as if they themselves had received the tail shocks: They displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of about 40 seconds.
Professor Glanzman stressed the marine snails were not hurt by the experiment, but they were alarmed. "So these snails are alarmed and release ink, but they aren't physically damaged by the shocks", he said.
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Long-term memory is thought to be housed within modified connections between brain cells. Kaang notes there are "many critical questions that need to be addressed to further validate the author's argument", such as what kinds of noncoding RNAs are specifically involved, how are the RNAs transferred among neurons, and how much do RNAs at the synapse play a role? The team found that the snail synapses built to "store" a memory weren't necessarily the synapses that were removed from the neural circuits in the memory-erasing experiments.
Scientists have long believed memories were stored in synapses.
The type of RNA relevant to these findings is believed to regulate a variety functions in the cell involved with the development and disease. Firstly, while A. californica is widely used to study neurological processes because of the way their neurons are similar to ours, what we observe in animal models can't always be applied to humans.
"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", he stated.
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When asked if this process would be conducive to the transplant of memories laid down through life experiences, Prof Glanzman was uncertain, but he expressed optimism that the greater understanding of memory storage would lead to a greater opportunity to explore different aspects of memory.