Snails' trace: scientists transfer memories between molluscs

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"It's as though we transferred the memory", said Glanzman, who is also a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute. Interestingly, the researchers discovered, adding RNA from the snails that had been given shocks also produced increased excitability in sensory neurons in a Petri dish; it did not do so in motor neurons.

Memory transfer has been one of science's early claims and more than enough Hollywood movies have successfully experimented with the topic.

The study aimed to understand memory, how can researchers restore it or how to ease traumatic cases. Biologists from the University of California Los Angeles published a study in the journal eNeuro explaining how they "implanted" a memory from one slug into another. The long-term memories are considered to be stored at the synapses of the brain or the junctions between the nerve cells. But when snails were exposed to the RNA from a snail that had been zapped, they retracted their parapodia for longer periods after zaps.

They then extracted RNA - an acid found in all living cells - from the snails' nervous systems and injected it into other snails that had not developed the reaction.

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For the experiment the team gave mild electric shocks to marine snail Aplysia californica. After this, the defensive withdrawal reflex of the snails became a lot more pronounced. But scientists have been studying sea snails for a long time, and they know an terrible lot about how the organisms learn. This is a huge step towards understanding how memory is stored and works, even in people. Animals have developed a protective reflex, expressed in the contraction of the muscles during 50 seconds in subsequent contacts with the electrodes.

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.

However, speaking with The Guardian, Tomás Ryan, a studier of memory at Trinity College Dublin, is not exactly convinced that Glanzman and his team have demonstrated an ability to transfer what we consider a personal memory. But UCLA neurobiologist David Glanzman subscribes to a different theory: the key to at least some memory storage, he thinks, is RNA, the cellular "messenger" that makes proteins and transmits DNA's instructions to other parts of the cell. 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? This has to mean that the memories are stored in some form within the nucleus.

"This idea is probably going to strike most of my colleagues as extremely improbable", Glanzman says. It's emblematic of his perspective on how memory works.