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UCLA Scientists Transfer Memories Between Sea Slugs

RNA Moves a Memory From One Snail to Another

Scientists believe they have successfully transplanted the memory of snails into other snails.

Science may never know what wistful memories play on the mind of the California sea hare, a 30cm-long hermaphrodite marine slug, as it munches on algae in the shallow tide pools of the Pacific coast. As a result, researchers used RNA, which is part of the epigenetic modification and part of the process of forming long-term memory.

But Ryan added that radical thinking about memory was sorely needed: "In a field like this which is so full of dogma, where we are waiting for people to retire so we can move on, we need as many new ideas as possible".

You may not carry your house on your back or release sulphuric acid, but you've got a lot more in common with a sea snail than you may think. They used small electric shocks to sea sails called Aplysia californica. After around 24 hours the snails had developed an instinctual reaction to recoil when being tapped on the tail.

Researchers in the United States achieved the feat by first teaching a group of Aplysia snails - using a series of mild electric shocks - to associate potential danger with a harmless tap on the outside of their shells.

Scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of the snails that received the shocks and injected it into a small number of marine snails that had not been sensitised in this way.

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What happened next was fantastic. Then the RNA from the first (sensitized) group was injected into seven marine snails that had not received any shocks, and the RNA from the second group was injected into a control group of seven other snails that also had not received any shocks.

As study author David Glanzman told the BBC, "If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked".

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. RNA from shocked snails also enhanced a subset of synapses between sensory and motor neurons in vitro, suggesting it was indeed the RNA that transported the memory, Glanzman explains. When they were shocked, the snails that weren't injected with RNA curled for only a few seconds, the way all snails do when they haven't been trained. In the 1940s, Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb proposed memories are made in the connections between neurons, called synapses, and stored as those connections grow stronger and more abundant. But Glanzman believes that they're actually stored inside the neurons themselves - and his experiment demonstrates this possibility. Seralynne Vann from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom made an interesting point about the chances of applying a similar technique in the study of human memory. So, Glanzman and his team researched if they can transfer long-term memory through the molecule.

But if Glanzman is right, his discovery could be a game-changer for those whose lives are negatively impacted by memory.

"I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer's disease or post-traumatic stress disorder".

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