UCLA biologists 'transfer' a memory


According to the researchers, the results show that memories are stored in the nuclei of neurons, where specific genes are activated and synthesizes corresponding ribonucleic acid. Those that had not been given the shocks contracted for only about one second. "So these snails are alarmed and release ink, but they aren't physically damaged by the shocks", he said. When tapping the snails, the ones in shock training contracted their bodies for nearly 50 seconds to defend themselves. It's a breakthrough which the biologists believe could one day lead to us being able to delete traumatic memories, or even bring back memories we thought were lost.

In the 1940s, Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb proposed memories are made in the connections between neurons, called synapses, and stored as those connections grow stronger and more abundant.

When the researchers subsequently tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks displayed a defensive contraction lasting about 50 seconds, while those that had not received the shocks contracted for only about one second.

The breakthrough was achieved with California sea hare snails whereby one was trained to perform a certain action, while another was untrained. Experiments in the 1960s, however, suggested RNA could play a role in making memories, though the work was largely written off as irreproducible. "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 experiment also has quite major implications for our understanding of where our memories are stored.

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"Engram" is the word used to denote the physical substrate of memory - the structure inside the brain that physically stores long term memories, broadly analogous to the way a hard-drive stores data on a computer.

Next, the researchers extracted a type of genetic material known as RNA from the nervous systems of the snails that had received the shock (the sensitized group), as well as from snails that had not received any shocks (an unsensitized group). Some of the dishes contained sensory neurons, and others contained motor neurons, which in the snail are responsible for the reflex. A group of untrained snails received RNA from the trained group and the second group received RNA from an untrained group.

However UCLA's work seems to contradict this. Researchers also know more about the biology of sensitization in marine snails than any other animal.

As Glanzman points out, if that theory were true, then the experiment wouldn't have succeeded. The paper might support hints from studies conducted decades ago that RNA was involved in memory.

"This idea is probably going to strike most of my colleagues as extremely improbable", Glanzman says.