Scientists Successfully Transplanted Memories From One Sea Snail to Another

Sunday, 20 May 2018 - 2:23PM
Technology
Neuroscience
Sunday, 20 May 2018 - 2:23PM
Scientists Successfully Transplanted Memories From One Sea Snail to Another
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National Human Genome Resource Institute
Extracting, cloning, or replicating memories has been a major staple in science fiction for a long time, appearing in everything from The Giver to Blade Runner to Total Recall (although those last two are both based on Philip K. Dick stories).

And while we're not quite able to transfer memories between humans, scientists have just achieved something similar with sea snails. In an experiment performed by a team of scientists at University of California, Los Angeles, Aplysia californica sea snails that were trained to develop certain habits had RNA extracted from their nervous systems, which was then implanted into untrained snails to see if they'd pick up the same habits.

The experiment was successful, albeit a little mean to the slugs - scientists gave small electric shocks to the memory-donating slugs, who would then become more skittish about being touched in general (which they showed by retracting their siphons). When their RNA was transplanted in the memory-receiving slugs, they would immediately become more skittish about being touched, as if they'd also been shocked.



The UCLA team published their research in eNeuro, and they insisted that the electric shocks weren't painful, just jarring - essentially, they transferred the memories of being startled to new snails, who then reacted the same way. The memories weren't anything complicated in these early tests, just memories of a certain stimulus and how to react to it.

But if the procedure is refined and tested on creatures slightly more advanced than a simple snail, scientists could start thinking bigger about what sort of memories are transplanted. In particular, it would give us a strong enough understanding of memory that we could use it to develop treatments for memory disorders like Alzheimer's.

The study's lead author, David L. Glanzman, explained it this way to CNN:

Opening quote
"We were able to transfer the memory using RNA. So if you think about human disorders of memory like dementia, Alzheimer's and PTSD, if we can identify some of the RNA that produces learning like alterations, it is possible we could use that knowledge to create new and more effective treatments."
Closing quote


Unfortunately, we're not there yet precisely because snails are so different from humans. Snails and slugs don't have a "brain" in the same way that we do - instead, they have nerve clusters scattered all over their body, and they have only about 20,000 neurons compared to a human's 100 billion neurons. But those neurons are large, which makes them easy to experiment on.

Still, this memory-transferring research is definitely a start, and could lead to larger experiments down the line. Ideally for treating memory disorders, and not for Total Recall scenarios.
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