Memory transfer between two organisms! YES, you read that right!

Understanding the physical basis of memory is something extremely challenging and interesting for scientists. Recently, scientists at UCLA (Lab of David Glanzman) have claimed to have transferred memories between sea snails by injecting RNA from a trained sea snail (Aplysia californica) into one that hasn’t been trained – and observing the trained response in the second snail!

To the training group of snails, electric shocks were applied. When researchers tapped the snails afterward, they contracted their bodies into a defensive posture for around 50 seconds – but the snails that had not been trained showed contraction for about one second. Then RNA was extracted from both the trained and untrained snails. The molecules were then injected into two groups of untrained snails.

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The observation was mind blowing! The untrained snails that had received RNA from the trained group then responded to taps as though they had been shocked too – contracting defensively for an average of 40 seconds. On the other hand, the untrained snails who had received RNA from untrained donors did not exhibit any change in their defensive response. This startling result has challenged the widely held view of where and how memories are stored in the brain.

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In the 1960s, James V. McConnell and others hypothesised a form of RNA that they called Memory RNA as a means of explaining how memories are stored in the brain. The concept behind it was that since RNA encoded information, and since living cells could produce and modify RNA in reaction to external events, it might also be used in neurons to record stimuli. Though the work was replicated by some other labs, McConnell’s work was largely ridiculed! McConnell had trained flatworms and then fed the bodies of trained worms to untrained worms. The untrained worms then appeared to exhibit the behavior of the trained worms they’d cannibalized, suggesting that memories were somehow transferred. He also showed that trained worms that were beheaded could remember their training after they grew new heads.

Recent studies on headless worms suggest that McConnell may have indeed been correct!

These research finding hints at the possibility of new treatments to restore lost memories.  Doctors could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorders. Of course, further research is necessary to confirm these but this can surely be a game changer for those whose lives are negatively impacted by memory!


Raibat Sarker

Image Sources: Google.

References and further reading:

  • https://www.sciencealert.com/memory-transferred-between-sea-snails-rna-engram
  • https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/965004/Science-news-memory-transplant-snails-RNA-memories-brain

Other articles by the same author:

Author: Raibat Sarker

A BS-MS (Chemistry) student and a KVPY fellow at IISER Bhopal who founded The Qrius Rhino in March 2018.. He was associated with the IISER Bhopal iGEM 2020 team which went on to win the gold medal in the jamboree. He is passionate about trekking and camping, apart from being a foodie and die-hard FCB fan. When not sciencing, eating, or complaining about his bad luck, you will find him hooked into novels or planning his next trek!

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