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

David Glanzman

The paper described an experiment in which UCLA scientists trained slugs called California sea hares (Aplysia californica) to react defensively to tail stimulation, then transferred their neural RNA to other slugs.

"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 United States", said Glanzman, whose study appears in the journal eNeuro.

David Glanzman tested the possibility that RNA from a trained California sea hare (Aplysia californica) can be used to create an engram - the elusive substrate of memory - in an untrained animal of the same species.

Once injected into the untrained snails, they too showed a similar defensive response without having ever demonstrated it before.

As it turned out, the RNA samples retained the memory of the electric shock, causing the untrained snails to exhibit a defense mechanism that lasted nearly as long as that of the donor snails. Animals have developed a protective reflex, expressed in the contraction of the muscles during 50 seconds in subsequent contacts with the electrodes.

The scientists injected the RNA from the sensitized group into seven snails that had not received any shocks.

Next, the researchers extracted a type of genetic material known as RNA from the nervous systems of the snails that had received the shock (the sensitized group), as well as from snails that had not received any shocks (an unsensitized group).

The second group then received the shocks and the snails contracted for only about two seconds.

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Rather than transferring what we think of as a memory, the team transferred something called an RNA or ribonucleic acid.

The shocked snails had been "sensitised" to the stimulus. A group of untrained snails received RNA from the trained group and the second group received RNA from an untrained group.

Scientists have found that for the production of reflex answer sensory neurons, which are excitable in the presence of certain RNA.

The work of Glanzman and his team, however, lends weight to an emerging counter-theory that suggests long-term memory is actually stored within the cell bodies of the neurons themselves.

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

Professor Glanzman said in future it might be possible to awaken and restore memories that have gone dormant in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, or ameliorate the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. 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.

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