Memory is one of the most important functions we have. Without it we would not be able to remember our loved ones, where we live or even our own names. It is seen as “the last of the great 20th-century questions in biology”.
Thanks to recent research, scientists may be on the verge of a breakthrough in understanding more about this enigmatic and indispensable faculty.
Traditional Thoughts on Memory
The truth is we do not know exactly how memory works.
The widely held view in the science community is that memory is linked to synaptic plasticity – the ability of our synapses to strengthen and weaken over time.
However, despite thousands of studies and papers examining synaptic plasticity and memory, we still do not have a good understanding of how memories are stored.
Of course, one might argue that the overwhelming focus on the relationship between synapses and memory is a reason for our continued lack of understanding.
Science Fiction and RNA
Popular culture is replete with stories that feature memory manipulation.
Men in Black has the iconic ‘neuralyzer’, a cigar-shaped device which emits a bright flash, allowing the user to delete their subjects’ memories and mould artificial ones.
Total Recall offers a glimpse of a dystopian future, where people engage false memory implantation services for leisure.
Biologists at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) may have taken the first step towards making this kind of science fiction a reality, thanks to RNA – ribonucleic acid.
RNA is related to DNA. It functions primarily as a carrier for the instructions encoded in DNA.
The UCLA scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of snails that received an electric shock.
After transplanting the RNA into snails that had not received a shock, they discovered that the unshocked snails reacted to touch in the same way as their donors.
In control tests, transplanting RNA from unshocked snails to other unshocked snails, scientists did not observe any behavioural change.
The study also found that sensory neurons from sea slugs reacted as if they had been shocked when exposed to RNA from the shocked snails. While exposure to RNA from unshocked snails did not elicit a reaction.
Why This Is Significant
Incredibly, the results suggest that a memory of the electric shock had been transferred from one organism to another.
This opens up the possibility that memories are stored in the nucleus of neurons, where RNA is created.
This flies in the face of conventional thoughts about memories and their creation through the strengthening of synapses which connect neurons in our brains.
The Case for Cautious Optimism
As exciting as these findings are, we should view them with some caution.
A snail’s brain is far less complex than a human’s and functions in a very different way. The studies’ results have also yet to be replicated in animals with more complex brains.
It also remains to be seen how RNA could connect multiple parts of the brain responsible for visual and auditory information, key parts of more intricate memories.
Nevertheless, the possibility of RNA playing a role in memory is significant. It could assist in deciphering the secrets of our memories that have proven so elusive thus far.