Incredible breakthrough shows transfer of memories possible

David Glanzman

Scientists have achieved what seemed impossible, they have transferred a memory from one living organism to another.

The scientists believe the information could provide clues to where memories are physically stored and how they can be altered.

"It's as though we transferred the memory", said David Glanzman, who is also a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute. The team's research is published May 14 in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience. He told the Guardian that the work is interesting but that he doesn't think that the team transferred a memory.

The scientists gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia californica.

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. At first, the snails would only retreat for a few seconds, but through repeated shocks, the scientists trained them to curl up for a longer period of time, about 50 seconds.


Next, researchers extracted RNA from the trained and untrained snails. It turned out that the transplantation of ribonucleic acids from sensitized snails contributed to the development of molluscs in the control group, the conditioned reflex of a duration of 40 seconds.

In comparison, snails tapped without electricity retreated for an average of 10 seconds. "If circulating neural RNAs can transfer behavioral states and tendencies, orchestrating both the transient feeling and the more permanent memory, it suggests that human memory-just like mood-will only be explained by exploring the interplay between bodies and brains". The snails in the control group did not display this behavior, indicating that the injection was responsible. But scientists have been studying sea snails for a long time, and they know an terrible lot about how the organisms learn. A second cohort, untrained, did not show the reflex. The researchers also tested some of the same techniques on snail neurons in a petri dish. Adding RNA from a marine snail that was not given the tail shocks did not produce this increased excitability in sensory neurons.

Researchers say that his experiment shows how essential parts of the memory trace or engram can be. (Each neuron has several thousand synapses.) Glanzman holds a different view, believing that memories are stored in the nucleus of neurons.

"If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked", he said. This simple form of learning is known as "sensitization". But despite the vast difference, the researchers said the cells of marine snails are still similar to those of humans, which makes this discovery that much more significant.

Glanzman predicts that in the future we could use our knowledge of RNA to actually awaken and restore memories that have been lost in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

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