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Success in snail memory transplant experiment

21 May 2018 09:04

The memory test was a success

The memory test was a success

A team of scientists have managed to successfully conduct a "memory transplant" between snails by transferring RNA, a form of genetic information, from one snail to another.

The snails were trained to develop a defensive reaction. When the snails received an injection for the first time, they behaved as if they'd been sensitised.

Scientists are saying this new research could pave the way to new information in the search for the physical basis of memory - and potentially illnesses of the brain.

Electric shocks

A group of marine snails (Aplysia californica) were given mild electric shocks to their tails which made them contract in a defensive reflex.

Afterwards the scientists tapped the tails of the snails to survey their reactions; those that had been given a shock displayed a defensive reaction that lasted about 50 seconds, while those that had not been given shocks only contracted for one second.

The snails that had been shocked showed they had become sensitised to the stimulus.

The scientists then extracted RNA from the shocked snails' nervous systems and injected it into other snails who had not been shocked.

The non-sensitised snails then reacted to the tapping as if they too had been shocked, contracting for a period of about 40 seconds.

"We transferred the memory"

"It was as though we transferred the memory," said Prof David Glanzman, one of the study's authors, from the University of California.

Traditionally, long-term memories were thought to be stored at the brain's synapses, the junctions between nerve cells. Each neuron has several thousand synapses.

But Prof Glanzman said: "If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked."

Prof Glanzman and his team believe 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.

The results of the study are thought to be a step towards alleviating the effects of diseases such as Alzheimer's or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Prof Glanzman was insistent that the snails did not get hurt during the investigation.

He said: "These are marine snails and when they are alarmed they release a beautiful purple ink to hide themselves from predators. So these snails are alarmed and release ink, but they aren't physically damaged by the shocks."

When questioned on whether this may lead to the possibility of a memory transplant in humans, however, Prof Glanzman was uncertain.

The research is published in the journal eNeuro.

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