Scientists say they have transferred memories between sea slugs, via injection

RNA Moves a Memory From One Snail to Another

It was "as though we had transferred the memory", study co-author and UCLA professor David Glanzman said, the BBC reported. The team's research is published May 14 in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

The sensitisation memory in the California sea hare are held in Ribonucleic acid (RNA). It is now understood to have other important functions besides protein coding, including regulation of a variety of cellular processes involved in development and disease.

As it turned out, the RNA samples retained the memory of the electric shock, causing the untrained snails to exhibit a defense mechanism that lasted nearly as long as that of the donor snails. They received one shock every 20 minutes, five times in a row followed by five more after 24 hours. But through repeated shocks, the researchers trained them to curl for longer, up to about 50 seconds. The UCLA team applied mild electric shocks to the creatures' tails in order to provoke a defense mechanism - a withdrawal reflex in which the snails contracted to protect themselves from harm. 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. Like all mollusks, these snails have groups of neurons called ganglia, rather than brains.

Next, the researchers added RNA to Petri dishes containing neurons extracted from different snails that did not receive shocks.

Meanwhile, the untrained snails who had received RNA from untrained donors did not exhibit any change in their defensive response.

And, of course, the RNA of untrained snails didn't have this effect on the sensory neurons. He found that introducing the RNA directly to the neurons "increased (their) excitability". The team found that the snail synapses built to "store" a memory weren't necessarily the synapses that were removed from the neural circuits in the memory-erasing experiments.

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Glanzman turned his attention to RNA because of those earlier hints it was related to memory, and also because of recent experiments suggesting long-term memory was stored in the cell bodies of neurons, not synapses.

Professor Glanzman stressed the marine snails were not hurt by the experiment, but they were alarmed.

Scientists know more about the cell biology of this simple form of learning in this animal than any other form of learning in any other organism, Glanzman said.

Marine snails were chosen for the experiment as their cellular and molecular processes are quite similar to that of human beings.

Much more research awaits, but for now, these results suggest that at least some kinds of memory could be modified using RNA, and it brings researcher closer to an overall understanding of the physical traces of memory in the nervous system.

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