Scientists Have Transferred Memories from One Group of Snails to Another

David Glanzman, senior author of the new study, holding a marine snail.
CHRISTELLE SNOW/UCLA

According a new study published in the online journal eNeuro, scientists at the University of California Los Angeles have transferred “memories” from one group of sea snails to another.

For the study, researchers applied a series of mild electric shocks to a group of marine snails. These shocks intensified the snails’ defensive withdrawal reflex, which the animal uses to protect itself. The intensification was confirmed because after the shocks were applied, the snail’s defensive contractions lasted about 50 seconds when the scientists tapped their shells. Normally, the contractions only last one second.

Then, scientists extracted a type of genetic material, called RNA, or ribonucleic acid, from the nervous systems of snails that had received the shock, and also took some RNA from a group of snails that had not received any shock.

RNA is a molecule in almost all organisms that carries instructions from our DNA to the rest of the cells.

The scientists then injected the RNA from the shocked group of snails into seven snails that hadn’t received any shocks. And then they injected RNA from the unshocked snails into another group that also hadn’t received any shocks.

The scientists found that the group of snails that were injected with the RNA from the shocked group began to behave as if they had been shocked when they were touched by the scientists. Their defensive contractions lasted 40 seconds. The snails who had never been shocked nor had received any shocked RNA did not display this behavior.

David Glanzman, a professor of integrative biology and physiology and neurobiology at UCLA, said, “It’s as though we transferred the memory. 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.”

Scientists hope to use such findings in the quest to help restore lost memories of humans.

– Blair Halliday