"These basic science approaches to explore this are very, very useful for identifying some of the foundation building blocks, if you will, of how this might contribute to the more complicated memories that you think of in humans", said Newbern.
A team successfully transplanted memories by transferring a form of genetic information called RNA from one snail into another.
Meanwhile, the untrained snails who had received RNA from untrained donors did not exhibit any change in their defensive response.
To test their hypothesis, they trained sea snails.
The scientists gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia californica. These shocks were said to enhance the withdrawal reflex of the snail, a defensive contraction it displays to protect itself from a potential threat.
When researchers tapped the snails afterward, those that had received the shock training contracted their bodies into a defensive posture for an average of around 50 seconds - but the snails that had not been trained only contracted for about one second.
The shocked snails had been "sensitised" to the stimulus. Then the RNA from the first (sensitized) group was injected into seven marine snails that had not received any shocks, and the RNA from the second group was injected into a control group of seven other snails that also had not received any shocks. (For a control, the team also took RNA from non-shocked snails and injected into naive snails.) When tapped on the siphon 24 hours later, snails that got RNA from shocked snails withdrew their siphon and gill for significantly longer (almost 40 seconds) than did snails that got RNA from non-shocked animals (less than 10 seconds).
Study coauthor David Glanzman of the University of California, Los Angeles, has been working on the cell biology of learning and memory for almost 40 years, and says for the majority of that time he believed memory was stored at synapses.
He also stressed that the snails did not get hurt: "These are marine snails and when they are alarmed they release a attractive purple ink to hide themselves from predators".
"So, these snails are alarmed and release ink, but they aren't physically damaged by the shocks", he explained. Each neuron has several thousand synapses.
Glanzman said the snail memory transplant shows memories may not reside in synapses as previously thought. He and his colleagues published research in the journal eLife in 2014 indicating that lost memories can be restored.
The findings of the study could affect our understanding of memory.
Professor Glanzman said in future it might be possible to awaken and restore memories that have gone dormant in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, or ameliorate the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
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