The type of RNA relevant to these findings is believed to regulate a variety functions in the cell involved with the development and disease.
David Glanzman tested the possibility that RNA from a trained California sea hare (Aplysia californica) can be used to create an engram - the elusive substrate of memory - in an untrained animal of the same species. When the snails were tapped slowly by the researchers, the snails that received a shock displayed a slight contraction that lasted for 50 seconds but the ones without any shock treatment showed contractions only for one second.
The next step was to extract RNA from the snails' nervous systems, but only from those that had received the shocks.
Glanzman and his colleagues discovered that those receiving RNA from the trained snails exhibited the same reflex actions in response to tail simulation - even though they had not themselves been trained to do so. (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).
"It's as though we transferred the memory."".
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As expected, the control group of snails did not display the lengthy contraction. When RNA was inserted into the system of the snails that had not undergone the process, they behaved as if they were sensitized.
During the experiment, researchers noted that neurons in a petri dish fired more if they received the genetic material of the shocked slugs than the material from the unshocked slugs. In the second case, injection of RNA were also conducted shellfish produced no reflex.
Marine snails were used in the experiment because they are an excellent model for studying the brain and memory. Zapping the culture with a bit of current excited the sensory neurons much more than neurons treated with RNA from nonshocked snails. The team found that the snail synapses built to "store" a memory weren't necessarily the synapses that were removed from the neural circuits in the memory-erasing experiments.
Scientists know more about the cell biology of this simple form of learning in this animal than any other form of learning in any other organism, Glanzman said.
Glanzman predicts that in the future we could use our knowledge of RNA to actually awaken and restore memories that have been lost in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
eNeuro, the Society for Neuroscience's open-access journal launched in 2014, publishes rigorous neuroscience research with double-blind peer review that masks the identity of both the authors and reviewers, minimizing the potential for implicit biases.