Transplanting memory accomplished successfully in snails

David Glanzman

David Glanzman

For the study, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles administered a series of mild electric shocks to marine snails from a species called Aplysia.

The "memory transplant" was achieved through ribonucleic acid (RNA) injections and provides new tantalizing clues regarding the memory trace - also known as an engram, the presumed physical substrate of memory.

It was "as though we had transferred the memory", study co-author and UCLA professor David Glanzman said, the BBC reported. He told the Guardian that the work is interesting but that he doesn't think that the team transferred a memory. It is now understood to have other important functions besides protein coding, including regulation of a variety of cellular processes involved in development and disease. These shocks amplified the snails' defensive withdrawal reflex-which it uses to protect itself. When the snails were tapped slowly by the researchers, the snails that received a shock displayed a slight contraction that lasted for 50 seconds but the ones without any shock treatment showed contractions only for one second. Those that had not been given the shocks contracted for only about one second.

Once this initial phase of the experiment was completed, the researchers extracted RNA from the sensitized sea hare snails and injected it into untrained specimens. On the other hand, those that did not receive shocks had a defensive contraction that lasted for only one second.

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Researchers were able to transfer the memories of a sea slug scared of being shocked to another sea slug. In the first case, the molecules were introduced in seven snails that have not undergone the procedure of impact shock.

Once injected into the untrained snails, they too showed a similar defensive response without having ever demonstrated it before. Some of the dishes contained sensory neurons, and others contained motor neurons, which in the snail are responsible for the reflex.

Speaking of what this means, Glanzman said: "What we are talking about are very specific kinds of memories, not the sort that says what happened to me on my fifth birthday, or who is the president of the U.S.".

The experiment also has quite major implications for our understanding of where our memories are stored.

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He said: "If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked". This simple form of learning is known as "sensitization".

The researchers said that the cells and molecular processes in the marine snails are similar to those in humans, despite the fact that the snail has about 20,000 neurons in its central nervous system and humans are thought to have about 100 billion.

Glanzman and his colleagues published research in 2014 suggesting that lost memories could potentially be restored based on this concept.

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