Skip to main content
Move the World.
David Glanzman, senior author of the
study, holding a marine snail.Credit: Christelle Snow/UCLA
David Glanzman, senior author of the study, holding a marine snail.Credit: Christelle Snow/UCLA

The physical basis for memory is a mystery, but it's long been thought to be simply a pattern of signals played across the synapses between brain cells. But an experiment at UCLA suggests that at least some information is stored inside brain cells, in RNA—and you can physically extract it and transfer it into another organism. This discovery could potentially fill in many of the gaps in our theory of how memories are created, stored, recalled, and ultimately lost.

Memory Music: You know that maddening feeling where you can almost-but-not-quite remember something? Concentrating, squeezing your eyes shut, maybe even gripping your head—you know it's in there, somewhere! The entire field of neuropsychology has been doing that for decades now, on a frustrating quest to figure out precisely where our memories are in the brain.

We know memory is a physical phenomenon—it can be lost through physical damage and diseases like Alzheimer's—but the brain is complicated, and it could potentially store information in lots of different ways. Memory storage has something to do with the physical structure of synapses between brain cells, and with the patterns of chemical and electrical signals that fire across them. In that view, memory is less like a box of papers and more like music playing over the brain—a pattern of activity, rather than a physical thing. But a few scientists think that information from our experiences could also be coded and stored inside neurons using RNA, the chemical that transcribes DNA and does other important tasks inside the cell.

It's as though we transferred the memory.

David Glanzman , UCLA Brain Research Institute

The Experiment: To test the RNA theory, biologists at UCLA trained marine snails by giving them electric shocks. Trained snails learned to be more sensitive to being touched, as a defense mechanism. A snail that has been shocked will contract for about 50 seconds after being tapped, whereas a normal snail will only contract for about one second. After waiting a day, researchers then extracted RNA from the nervous system of the trained snails and injected it into a test group. The test snails showed the same defensive reflex as the trained group, contracting for about 40 seconds—they "remembered" shocks that happened to their RNA donor, and behaved accordingly. A transfer from a control group did not cause any changes in behavior.

Hmm… Is That Really "Memory"? To narrow down how the RNA was affecting the snails, the scientists extracted motor neurons, which are responsible for actually causing the physical contraction, and sensory neurons, which are responsible for experience. The cells were placed in a Petri dish and then treated with RNA from trained snails and untrained snails. The trained RNA caused "increased excitability" in the sensory neurons—just like in snails that are being shocked directly—but not in the motor neurons. (The untrained snail RNA caused no changes at all.) The authors believe this means that RNA is transferring something experiential, not simply a chemical that makes it easier for motor neurons to cause contractions.

The Upshot: The study is intriguing, and the authors naturally think it's a smoking gun that memory is stored inside brain cells. "If memories were stored at synapses, there is no way our experiment would have worked," says the lead UCLA researcher, David Glanzman. But it's important to keep it in perspective. We don't really know what kind of RNA is causing the behavior (there are several types), or what changed about it in the electrocuted snails.

We also don't know how common this type of storage might be, or what kinds of experiences or behavioral responses might be retained this way. After all, "contract when startled" is pretty simple compared to, say, kung fu, who your cousin is, or even where you left your keys. Until we know more, there's no reason to abandon the traditional view that memory is at least mostly a function of patterns in brain activity. But this extra component might help fill in some of the gaps in how we understand and treat brain disorders.

I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer's disease or post-traumatic stress disorder.

David Glanzman , UCLA Brain Research Institute

More About

Dispatches
Neuroscience Has a Low-Tech Answer for a Good Night's Sleep
Neuroscience Has a Low-Tech Answer for a Good Night's Sleep
Dispatches
Neuroscience Has a Low-Tech Answer for a Good Night's Sleep

Neuroscientists say that we may be ignoring a basic fact that could defuse the "screen-time wars" between parents and kids.

By Adriana Galván

Neuroscientists say that we may be ignoring a basic fact that could defuse the "screen-time wars" between parents and kids.

Dispatches
AI Could Replace Chemical Testing on Animals
AI Could Replace Chemical Testing on Animals
Dispatches
AI Could Replace Chemical Testing on Animals

Scientists have developed software that could save one billion dollars (and two million animals) each year.

By Thomas Hartung

Scientists have developed software that could save one billion dollars (and two million animals) each year.

Dispatches
Scientists Want to Rewrite the Entire Human Genome, from Scratch
Scientists Want to Rewrite the Entire Human Genome, from Scratch
Dispatches
Scientists Want to Rewrite the Entire Human Genome, from Scratch

What if we could rewrite our entire genetic code to make us invincible against viruses?

By Dan Bier

What if we could rewrite our entire genetic code to make us invincible against viruses?

Science
Reducing Food Waste and Feeding the Hungry
Reducing Food Waste and Feeding the Hungry
Watch Now
Science
Reducing Food Waste and Feeding the Hungry

What if instead of throwing out leftover food, we used it to feed the hungry?

Watch Now

Hunger effects nearly 15 million people in the United States, yet we rank number one in the world when it comes to food waste. A non-profit called Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is on a mission to take what would become food waste and use it to feed the hungry. Through their web app, restaurants, hotels, and catering companies can offer excess food for volunteers to pick up and bring to homeless…

Science
Why Don't We Believe Extreme Weather Forecasts?
Why Don't We Believe Extreme Weather Forecasts?
Science
Why Don't We Believe Extreme Weather Forecasts?

Research shows people don't take extreme weather predictions seriously. And don't take the necessary precautions as a result.

By Mike Riggs

Research shows people don't take extreme weather predictions seriously. And don't take the necessary precautions as a result.

The New Space Race
Where Did the Commercial Space Sector Come From?
Where Did the Commercial Space Sector Come From?
The New Space Race
Where Did the Commercial Space Sector Come From?

Private companies have worked with NASA for decades. Can the next generation of space companies get by without the government…

By Mike Riggs

Private companies have worked with NASA for decades. Can the next generation of space companies get by without the government as their biggest customer?

The New Space Race
A Delivery Service for the Moon
A Delivery Service for the Moon
Watch Now
The New Space Race
A Delivery Service for the Moon

This startup wants to offer the world insanely accurate shipping to the moon.

Watch Now

Landing on the moon has always been an inaccurate pursuit. But Astrobotic has fixed that problem. The company’s unique GPS system allows it to land spacecraft within meters—rather than kilometers—of the intended target. And now they’re using the tech to offer the world’s first delivery service to the moon.

Science
A Regulatory Fight Is Brewing Over Experimental Stem Cell Therapies
A Regulatory Fight Is Brewing Over Experimental Stem Cell Therapies
Science
A Regulatory Fight Is Brewing Over Experimental Stem Cell Therapies

New proposed regulations from the FDA would effectively shut down private stem cell clinics in the U.S.

By Mike Riggs

New proposed regulations from the FDA would effectively shut down private stem cell clinics in the U.S.

Superhuman
A Life Changed by Robotic Legs
A Life Changed by Robotic Legs
Watch Now
Superhuman
A Life Changed by Robotic Legs

Robert is paralyzed. But thanks to a robotic exoskeleton, he can walk again.

Watch Now

After an accident, Robert Woo was paralyzed from the chest down. Woo spent the next four years in a wheelchair and in therapy. But even as he learned how to live his new life, he couldn’t stop asking one very simple question: How could humans build skyscrapers, but not something better than a wheelchair? Then Woo heard about bionic exoskeletons. And it changed his life.