Another staple plot device of science fiction may soon be crossing the line into science. Researchers at UCLA have successfully transferred memory from one creature’s brain to another. Is this the solution to finding out where a criminal hid the money?
This revolutionary discovery appears in the current edition of the journal eNeuro. UCLA neurobiologist David Glanzman did not accept the commonly held belief that memories are stored in brain synapses and decided to look for an alternative memory storage locker. He speculated that one existed in RNA (ribonucleic acid), the messenger service for DNA inside cells. To test this theory, Glanzman used electrical shocks to train Aplysia californica to respond defensively when jolted in a certain area.
Aplysia what? OK, the test subjects in this experiment were California sea hares, the giant foot-long hermaphrodite marine snails found along the US Pacific coast. What do giant snails have to remember besides where they parked their shells? Actually, Aplysia californica are favorite lab subjects of neuroscientists because, while their bodies are slow, their brains are quite fast. And with only about 20,000 neurons in them (humans have 100 billion), sea hare brains are easy to study and map.
After training one set of snails to respond when shocked in their siphon (the water intake tube snails use for locomotion, feeding, respiration, and reproduction) and setting up a control group with their siphons wired but not receiving shocks, Glanzman’s team extracted RNA from their brains and injected them into other snails. When tested, the snails receiving RNA from the trained donors had the same reflexive responses while those getting control group RNA did not.
“If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked.”
That’s important because synapses are not permanent while some memories are. Or at least they are until a person has Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder or other brain problems. While he doesn’t explain how in the study nor the press release from UCLA, Glanzman believes that this RNA transfer can revive lost memories or those that have been shut down by disease.
Of course, it’s a long way from snails to humans (in most cases) and there are still many neuroscientists who are sticking with the 'memory resides in synapses’ side. But Glanzman's research is a start. His next step is to identify which specific types of RNA can be used to perform successful memory transfers.
Until then, remember this – Shocked In The Siphon would be a great name for a band.