Biologists successfully ‘transfer’ a memory from one snail to another.
Biologists successfully ‘transfer’ a memory from one snail to another.

Shocking memory transplant breakthrough

THE concept of being able to download and transplant your memories into another sentient being just got a little less ridiculous.

The idea has been a mainstay of science fiction for years, but scientists have carried out research that could provide new clues in the search for the physical basis of memory.

In a new study, published in the journal eNeuro, scientists from the University of California Los Angeles claim to have succeeded in taking a simple form of memory from one sea snail and implanting it in another.

Many marine organisms function the same way mammals do, albeit in a much simpler way. Sea snails are good subjects to perform research on because their nerves transmit impulses much the way humans do.

Researchers effectively transplanted memories by transferring a form of genetic information called RNA (RNA stands for ribonucleic acid and just like DNA, RNA is vital for living beings) from specially trained snails to other snails that didn't receive the training.

The study involved giving snails a small shock to produce a learned defensive reaction. The snails that were trained would curl up for about 40 to 50 seconds after being shocked compared to just one or two seconds for the untrained snails.

David Glanzman holding a marine snail. Picture: Christelle Snow/UCLA
David Glanzman holding a marine snail. Picture: Christelle Snow/UCLA

But when the RNA molecules were transplanted from the trained snails to the untrained snails, they exhibited the same defensive response when shocked.

The study could provide new clues to where memories are physically stored and how they can be altered.

"If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked," said lead researcher Dr David Glanzman.

He is also a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute and hopes the research could prove useful in treating degenerative brain disorders.

"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," he said in a statement.

In the study's abstract, researchers wrote: "It is generally accepted that long-term memory (LTM) is encoded as alterations in synaptic strength. An alternative model, however, proposes that LTM is encoded by epigenetic changes."

There are many kinds of RNA, and in future research, Dr Glanzman wants to identify the types of RNA that can be used to transfer memories.

But such science is very much in its infancy and it would likely be decades until researchers thought about applying it to humans.

Science and tech publication Futurism summed up the research, writing: "We're still a way off from becoming a karate black belt simply by injecting some RNA into our necks, or downloading sweet dance moves directly to our minds. But we may be a step closer to it, thanks to the humble, oft-shocked sea snail."