Scientists Gaslight Snails

Matthew G. Saroff
2 min readDec 28, 2022

As Anna Russel would say, “I’m not making this up, you know.”

A group of neuroscientists have implanted memories in snails.

This is a highly complex biochemical procedure, using RNA to transfer memories from a trained snail to an untrained sale, but to the layman, this is chemically assisted gaslighting.

Also, who trains snails?

Transferring memories from one living thing to another sounds like the plot of an episode of “Black Mirror.” But it may be more realistic than it sounds — at least for snails.

In a paper published Monday in the journal eNeuro, scientists at the University of California-Los Angeles reported that when they transferred molecules from the brain cells of trained snails to untrained snails, the animals behaved as if they remembered the trained snails’ experiences.

David Glanzman, a professor of neurobiology at U.C.L.A. who is an author of the new paper, has been studying Aplysia californica, a sea snail, and its ability to make long-term memories for years. The snails, which are about five inches long, are a useful organism for studying how memories are formed because their neurons are large and relatively easy to work with.

In experiments by Dr. Glanzman and colleagues, when these snails get a little electric shock, they briefly retract their frilly siphons, which they use for expelling waste. A snail that has been shocked before, however, retracts its siphon for much longer than a new snail recruit.

Recently, the scientists realized that even when they interfered with their trained snails’ brain cells in a way that should have removed the memory completely, some vestige remained. They decided to see whether something beyond the brain cells’ connections to each other — namely, RNA — could be hanging on to the memory.

………

To understand what was happening in their snails, the researchers first extracted all the RNA from the brain cells of trained snails, and injected it into new snails. To their surprise, the new snails kept their siphons wrapped up much longer after a shock, almost as if they’d been trained.

Next, the researchers took the brain cells of trained snails and untrained snails and grew them in the lab. They bathed the untrained neurons in RNA from trained cells, then gave them a shock, and saw that they fired in the same way that trained neurons do. The memory of the trained cells appeared to have been transferred to the untrained ones.

Importantly, when the researchers gave the new snails a drug that keeps chemical tags from being added to DNA, the memory did not transfer. That is in line with other experiments that have suggested that blocking the formation of such tags blocks the formation of long-term memory in snails and some rodents, said Dr. Glanzman. That suggests that what they are seeing is in fact related to memory, and not something else to do with the influx of new RNA.

Science was glorious, isn’t it?

--

--