Biologists from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), just unlocked a groundbreaking discovery that could lead us to new ways to lessen the trauma of painful memories and to restore lost memories. The biologists have transferred a memory from one marine snail to another, creating an artificial memory, by injecting RNA from one to another.
Memory RNA just used to be a hypothetical form of RNA that was proposed by James V. McConnell and others in the 1960s. They coined the term to explain how memories were stored in the brain. The concept behind it was that since RNA encoded information, and since living cells could produce and modify RNA in reaction to external events, it might also be used in neurons to record stimuli.
David Glanzman, the Senior Author of the study and a UCLA Professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology and Neurobiology, said that he thinks that we are close to potentially using RNA to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Known as a cellular messenger that makes proteins, RNA, or ribonucleic acid, has also been widely known to carry out DNA’s instructions to other parts of the cell. It is now understood to have other essential functions besides protein coding, including regulation of a variety of cellular processes involved in development and disease.
The biologists gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia. The snails received five tail shocks, one every 20 minutes, and then five more 24 hours later. The shocks enhance the snail’s defensive withdrawal reflex, a response it displays for protection from potential harm. When the researchers then tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks exhibited a defensive contraction that lasted an average of 50 seconds, a simple type of learning known as “sensitization.” Those that had not been given the shocks contracted for only about one second.
The scientists found that the snails that received the RNA from snails that were given the shocks behaved as if they had received the tail shocks: They displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of about 40 seconds.
Glanzman said that it is possible that RNA can be used to awaken and restore memories that have gone dormant in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He and his colleagues published their research in 2014 indicating that lost memories can be restored. Now, with discoveries like Glanzman’s, it is possible to help people that suffer traumatic experiences from the past and help people with Alzheimer’s disease to regain the memories that they lost.