Other than when a specific discovery excites the popular imagination enough that the published findings are picked up (and badly explained [sorry]) by news outlets, we don’t really know what scientists are up to. Hidden away in labs that they have only reluctantly left a handful of times since they first started attending university decades ago, they could be doing anything. Giving weasels knives for hands? Teaching bees how to open doors? Inventing a new kind of pain called ‘pain 2.0’? We simply don’t know.
What we do know is that some of these scientists have directed the pointy end of their intellect and scientific nouse at trying to transplant simple memories between snails – and they’ve apparently succeeded. The findings, published under the highly-accessible title ‘RNA from Trained Aplysia Can Induce an Epigenetic Engram for Long-Term Sensitization in Untrained Aplysia‘ in the neuroscience journal eNeuro, outline efforts to transfer simple memories via RNA injections between individual California sea hares, a species of foot-long sea snails.
Confirming my existing belief that all science resembles the sort of science depicted in Frankenstein, the UCLA scientists tested their theory by electrocuting the hell out of the sea snails. Sea snails of the genus Aplysia were chosen because they have very simple brains with “large, individually identifiable neurons“ that are easy for scientists to ‘train’ specific responses in with directed electrical shocks.
In the case of the memory swap, scientists shocked selected sea snails to train them in “long-term sensitization” that would see them contract their gills when their siphon was prodded. Sea snails that didn’t have this response then had RNA from the trained sea snails’ central nervous system injected into their own. Voilà: they suddenly had the same defensive response when prodded.
To test if maybe it’s just that sea snails that got an RNA injection into their gullyworks become particularly jumpy, RNA from untrained sea snails was transferred into other untrained sea snails. These sea snails did not present the behaviour present in the trained sea snails, remaining undefensive when smooshed.
Speaking to the BBC, David L Glanzman, who thought up the study, stressed that the snails weren’t hurt in the process:
These are marine snails and when they are alarmed they release a beautiful purple ink to hide themselves from predators. So these snails are alarmed and release ink, but they aren’t physically damaged by the shocks.
Glanzman also stressed to The Guardian that the sorts of memories apparently being transferred here are distinct from what we think of as human memories:
What we are talking about are very specific kinds of memories, not the sort that says what happened to me on my fifth birthday, or who is the president of the United States.
So, uh, don’t get too excited about getting your memories injected into the body of, say, a dolphin or one of these incredibly toned people who do Cirque du Soleil. Not yet.
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