USA scientists transfer memory from one snail to another by transplanting RNA

The California sea hare Aplysia californica. Credit Wikimedia Commons

The California sea hare Aplysia californica. Credit Wikimedia Commons

A group of scientist from the University of California (UCLA) have successfully transplanted memories from one snail to another.

The research wasn't done to create some sort of mollusc mega-mind, but to help understand the physical basis of memory - and it could aid in both restoring lost memories, and easing the trauma of painful ones. The team's research is published May 14 in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

First, David Glanzman at the University of California taught an untrained California sea hare (Aplysia californica) to react defensively to "tail stimulation" - a shock.

The researchers administered five electric shocks to the training group of snails, one every 20 minutes. After these shocks were administered. the snail's defensive withdrawal reflex - where the snails contract in order to protect themselves from harm.

According to the BBC, the team observed that sensitized snails had a defensive contraction of up to 50 seconds, whereas the specimens that weren't familiar with the electric shock only contracted for about a second. Soon after, the RNA from the subject was extracted and injected into another sea snail to see what happened. (For a control, the team also took RNA from non-shocked snails and injected into naive snails.) When tapped on the siphon 24 hours later, snails that got RNA from shocked snails withdrew their siphon and gill for significantly longer (almost 40 seconds) than did snails that got RNA from non-shocked animals (less than 10 seconds).

As expected, the control group of snails did not display the lengthy contraction.

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Glanzman wanted to know if the RNA from shocked snails actually affected the neuronal connections of the snails receiving the injections any differently than RNA from nonshocked snails. When Glanzman repeated the experiment with RNA from sea snails that had been hooked up to wires but not shocked, the reflex behaviour did not transfer.

When a marine snail is given electric tail shocks, its sensory neurons become more excitable.

For the next stage of the experiment, the researchers extracted motor neurons and sensory neurons from untrained snails, putting them in petri dishes either separately or in pairs containing one neuron of each type. He found that introducing the RNA directly to the neurons "increased (their) excitability".

Glanzman turned his attention to RNA because of those earlier hints it was related to memory, and also because of recent experiments suggesting long-term memory was stored in the cell bodies of neurons, not synapses.

"If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked", said Glanzman, who added that the marine snail is an excellent model for studying the brain and memory.

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