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Injections may transplant memories between sea snails

A sea snail
A green neon sea snail. Photo: Prisma Bildagentur/UIG via Getty Images

Researchers claim to have transplanted a specific memory between sea snails using RNA injections, reports the Guardian.

Why it matters: If the findings of the new study in the journal eNeuro are eventually proven to be accurate — something some scientists express doubt over — it could prompt a rethinking of the concept of memories.

The backdrop: The scientists, led by UCLA neurobiologist David Glanzman, theorized that some memories are encoded in an organism's genetic makeup, and not just in their brain.

What they did, per the Guardian:

  • Glanzman implanted wires into the tails of two California sea hares and gave them a series of electric shocks to sensitize them and trigger a defense mechanism.
  • Researchers extracted RNA from these sea snails and injected it into others that had not been exposed to the shocks. They found they became sensitized as well and showed the same defense mechanism.

What they're saying: Other researchers aren't convinced that this hypothesis rings true. Some told the Guardian that there may be a switch in the snails triggered by the RNA that causes the snails to become defensive, but it may not be the same thing as transplanting a memory.

Yes, but: Tomás Ryan, a scientist studying memory, said radical thought is needed in the field, even if hypotheses like the one in this study are eventually proven to be flawed. He told the Guardian:

"In a field like this which is so full of dogma, where we are waiting for people to retire so we can move on, we need as many new ideas as possible."