Snail Memory Transplant Performed Using RNA, Scientists Say

Georgia Reed
May 17, 2018

Recently, the scientists realized that even when they interfered with their trained snails' brain cells in a way that should have removed the memory completely, some vestige remained.


"It's as though we transferred the memory."


For decades, researchers have tried to pinpoint how, when, and where memories form.

The current favoured theory among neuroscientists, however, is that long-term memories are encoded in synapses - the functional interfaces between neurons through which electrical or chemical signals pass.

The world's first memory transplant was just achieved in marine snails.

Professor David Glanzman, who was part of the experiment, said that the snails acted as if they transferred their memory.

Researchers in the USA achieved the feat by first teaching a group of Aplysia snails - using a series of mild electric shocks - to associate potential danger with a harmless tap on the outside of their shells.

Glanzman says he has the evidence to support this controversial hypothesis.

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The study aimed to understand memory, how can researchers restore it or how to ease traumatic cases.

When the neurons were bathed in RNA from untrained snails, the nerve cells' reactions were shorter and less intense.

"These are marine snails and, when they are alarmed, they release a attractive purple ink to hide themselves from predators", Glanzman said in a statement. This "reflex" was not instantaneous, but it lasted up to 40 seconds. The manoeuvre was repeated when the snail was mildly touched as well.

This idea is probably going to strike most of my colleagues as extremely improbable.

Next the researchers extracted RNA from the nervous systems of these snails that had been shocked. He found the recipient sea snails became sensitised, suggesting the "memory" of the electrical shocks had been transplanted.

A second, untrained, group of snails only retreated for 1 second upon receiving a tap. He explained that the changes within the neurons is mediated by the RNA as seen by this experiment.

However UCLA's work seems to contradict this. 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? In both experiments, the recipient - either the snail or the petri-neurons - remembered something the donor snail had experienced.

There's been a long-simmering debate in neuroscience about whether the essential units of memory are stored primarily in the "transcriptome" (the long molecules inside cells also used to record genes) or the "connectome" (the network of links between nerve cells). Another camp believed memories were stored in the nuclei of neurons.

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