Scientists Are Repeatedly Fucking With Snails’ Memory

If you want to forget about the continuous shitshow that was 2020 and now 2021, it’s too bad you’re not a snail.

Researchers have been manipulating, implanting, and snipping memories in the animals for years. This gastropodic version of Black Mirror has, scientists claim, been in hopes to find a cure to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other neurological stressors.

For humans, this means we have a better understanding of how memory works and the physical processes that go into forming nervous systems. For snails, it means getting pretty fucked up in the head.

“Human brains are so complex … so snails have a lot of advantages in that they have relatively simple nervous systems,” Dr, David L. Glanzman, a member of UCLA’s Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, told CNN in a 2018 interview.

Glanzman’s team conducted a study where they lightly shocked the tails of some snails and trained them to be familiar with the sensation. Then, once the snails were “trained,” the group of researchers removed RNA from the trained snails’ nervous systems and implanted the organic material into “untrained” snails that hadn’t been exposed to any shock, according to CNN.

The result, 24 hours later, was a new group of trained snails. That is, the animals who hadn’t received any shock were reacting as if they had. In the human world this means, this raises such far-flung possibilities as one day using  RNA treatments to remember forgotten memories.

This is just one example in the wide-ranging world of mollusk memory manipulation in the name of science. In fact, scientists have been studying memory and conditioning in snails for decades. A press release for a 2008 study about snail memories notes that Glanzman had, at that point, been researching the topic for 25 years. Indeed, in the 1980s, scientists were attempting to classically condition snails (think Pavlov’s dogs).

As for why snails make such popular subjects, a 2012 article in Scientific American about research using a compound in chocolate to stimulate snail memories notes that snails’ experiences can be easily and tightly regulated in an experiment and they also have large neurons, making observation easier.

As Motherboard previously reported, in 2017 researchers from Columbia University and McGill University were able to eradicate long-term memory from snails using a drug to block two different types of Protein Kinase M (PKM) molecules. These proteins are responsible for the strength, or “clarity,” of associative and non-associative memories.

In human terms, say that someone got mugged next to a fast-food restaurant. Moving forward, every time they saw that fast food restaurant, the memory of the mugging would be triggered. This snail-tested drug would ideally prevent that association from happening by selectively erasing the memory of said fast-food restaurant’s relation to the mugging.

“Obviously drugs designed to help individuals with real needs can be abused, opioids designed as anesthetics or for pain relief are now being abused,” Dr. Samuel Schacher, a professor of neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center, told  Motherboard at the time. “An essential role of government is regulating how drugs are tested and distributed, and making sure that medical professionals use them appropriately.”

Researchers are unsure of how long this erasure would last. It is, however, promising because the science involved can be translated from snail to human.

“So if you think about human disorders of memory like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and PTSD, if we can identify some of the RNA that produces learning like alterations, it is possible we could use that knowledge to create new and more effective treatments,” Dr. Glanzman told CNN.

Though we’re ways off from full control of the memory-making process à la escargot, these snails have shined a light into the future of neurological research. May they be remembered for their contributions to science.

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