At first glance, the great pond snail seems like just another slimy mollusk.
But researchers have been cutting into the Lymnaea stagnalis for decades in an attempt to understand human behaviors.
Memory, specifically, has long alluded neuroscientists. A recent discovery, however, suggests cognizance is—at least at a molecular level—similar across organisms.
“People have built on this work, and it’s turned out to be very relevant,” David Glanzman, a neurobiology professor at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, told National Geographic.
“The whole goal of this line of research is to reduce memory to its simplest possible instance,” he continued. “The neurons in these snails are very large, and they’re great for electrophysiological recording.”
Electrophysiology is the study of electrical properties of biological cells and tissues, and it can help scientists explore memory and its formation.
Which is exactly what analysts at the University of Sussex are doing.
A new study, published recently in the journal Scientific Reports, focuses on how trauma is remembered and how memories can be manipulated—based on L. stagnalis.
It’s not exactly ethical—or legal, for that matter—to dissect living people’s brains for research purposes. No one is too bothered, though, about snails.
“To a certain extent, [snails] can be used to investigate mechanisms which are involved in such bright memories [in humans],” Sergei Korneev, co-author on the new paper, said in a statement to NatGeo.
With a team of researchers, Korneev trained snails to perform certain activities … then extracted their brains during various stages of memory formation.
The breakthrough came when they identified a molecule called microRNA-137—one of a series of very short RNA constructions that don’t code proteins, but are necessary to form long-term memories.
“If we block the activity of 137, then long-term memory formation will be significantly impaired,” Korneev explained.
What exactly does this gobbledygook mean for actual people?
By learning to control levels of these proteins, researchers can develop medication for folks with memory issues. As NatGeo pointed out, they may be able to relieve the block on forming new memories in dementia patients, and repress painful flashbacks in those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s no question in my mind that this kind of work is going to be relevant in Alzheimer’s disease,” Glanzman, who is not involved in the study, said.
“Even though [studying snail memory] seems odd, there’s a long history of this, and it’s turned out to provide us with key insights into memory in mammals and humans,” he added. “It seems obscure, but it’s actually not.”
Research involving L. stagnalis actually dates back to the early 1980s; subsequent experiments have focused on various aspects of feeding, withdrawal, and aerial respiratory behaviors in the snails.
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