Scientists claim to have transplanted memories between sea snails by injecting cells from one into the other. Aside from hoping that the snails didn’t suffer (Is there anything we haven’t enslaved for our own ends?), the research claims that some memories may be encoded in RNA molecules and not in the connectivity of brain cells as tradition has taught.
RNA is short for ribonucleic acid and differs from the more commonly known DNA. While DNA has two intercoiled strands, RNA has one strand.
To test the theory, David Glanzman, a neurobiologist at the University of California in Los Angeles connected wires onto the tails of California sea hares (Aplysia californica) and proceeded to give them an electric shock within a siphon. When they were subsequently prodded, the snails reacted by contracting their gills in a defensive manner suggesting they were alert, aware or expecting another electric shock. The reaction is akin to the actions of an earthquake survivor in the aftermath as they tense up at any loud noise or rumble.
RNA was then extracted from the sea snails and injected into another set who reacted in the same manner. A control group of snails showed no reaction when prodded suggesting that the memories may have been transferred. The work was published in the journal Eneuro.
“The dominant model of learning and neuroscience today is that when an animal learns something, there is growth in new synaptic connections or change in existing ones,” Glanzman said. “So essentially, memory is stored in synapses. Our study suggests that can’t be true.”
Other scientists have poured cold water on the notion suggesting that the study may have extracted a whole host of ‘switches’ within the RNA rather than transplanting memories.