WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The brain still has many mysteries, memory formation being one of them, but breakthroughs in epigenetics and neuroscience are starting to unravel them and it could lead to new sci-fi like capabilities and revolutionary new healthcare treatments.
A lot has been going on in the field of memory recently, from epigenetic experiments that have uncovered that memories can be passed down through 14 generations in DNA through to the creation of hive minds between two rats on different continents, and new mind reading techniques that are increasingly able to pull dreams, images, movies, sentences and other memories from our heads and display them on a TV screen. All that said though memory transfer between living creatures may sound like science fiction, and that’s largely because it still is, but according to scientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and a paper they published in ENeuro, it just became reality, albeit one that has to be taken with a big pinch of salt, but if the experiment can be replicated then not only is it a break through in memory transfer, but it will also fundamentally change the field of neuroscience and challenge our thinking of how memories are formed.
This week a team from UCLA announced they’ve successfully transferred molecules from brain cells of trained snails into untrained snails, giving the untrained snails the trained snails’ instincts, and seemingly their memories.
The researchers experimented on Aplysia californica sea snails, small organisms with large neurons that are relatively easy to work with. When researchers gave snails small electric shocks, they retracted their frilly siphons, and the snails that had been shocked before retreated their siphons for longer than new snails.
Over the past couple of years there has been increasing interest in the role that RNA plays in memory and the team behind this latest experiment wondered if the snail’s RNA could hold the key to transferring memories between each other.
RNA typically carries messages between the genome and the rest of the cell, but certain types of RNA can switch genes on and off, and can influence long-term memory in snails, mice and rats. Scientists extracted all of the RNA from the trained snails and implanted them into new snails, and to their surprise the new snails immediately picked up the habits of the trained snails, as if they had the same memories.
Not since the 1960s have scientists discovered a way to transfer memories. In the 1960s, scientists fed remains of chopped up flatworms trained to respond to light to other flatworms to see in the memories would transfer. The experiment seemed to work, although it was hard to replicate. Snails are a far cry from human subjects, obviously, but now the researchers are hopeful that others will attempt similar experiments in other animals, helping them understanding the role of RNA, DNA, and memory.
“We have been able to transfer the memory using RNA,” lead author of the study David Glanzman told CNN, “so if you think about human disorders of memory like dementia, Alzheimer’s and PTSD, if we can identify some of the RNA that produces learning like alterations, it is possible we could use that knowledge to create new and more effective treatments.”
As for when we will be able to do this in humans though, or transfer our own memories into an avatar, like Ava, or robot, well, sorry folks, we’re still a way off from that yet, but as research in the field continues to accelerate we might now be nearing the time when we realise it, albeit at a snail’s pace…!