Monday, June 11, 2018

Reading the Research: Memory Transfer

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article is in the far end of theoretical, but had such interesting ramifications for autism and PTSD that I couldn't leave it alone.  Today's article suggests the possibility of transferring memories from one organism to another.

The experiment was done on marine snails, so you can pretty much guarantee this won't be available for humans anytime soon, but basically, the researchers found it was possible to use nervous system RNA to "transfer" a reaction to having their shells tapped on.  The researchers gathered four groups of snails.  The first two were the preliminary group.  One set in the preliminary group was left alone, the other was exposed to mild electrical shocks delivered to their tails.  RNA was then gathered from the nervous system of both preliminary groups. 

The remaining two groups, the experimental group, received the RNA.  All four groups of snails then had their shells lightly tapped on.  The normal reaction to this stimulus is to contract into their shells, but only for a second or so.  The experimental snails, though, which had been given the RNA from the group that had received electrical shocks?  Their defensive reaction nearly matched their donors' reactions (40 seconds, average, versus 50 seconds for the snails that had been shocked). 

It might be a bit of a stretch, at this point, to call that "transferring a memory," but at the very least, it did seem to transfer a basic reaction.  The senior researcher thinks this suggests an alternate theory for where memories are stored.  It's currently assumed that memories are kept in the brain's synapses, the connection points between neurons.  This researcher thinks, instead, that memories are stored in the nucleus of those neurons.  The experiment backs this idea up, since the RNA was taken in such a way that the synapses weren't involved. 

If it becomes possible to transfer reactions, and even whole memories, from one person to another, this could be an enormously useful teaching tool for autistic people, and a possible therapy for PTSD and Alzheimer's.  The latter two conditions could be treated by damping down the power of memories (for PTSD) and reminding or re-introducing memories (for Alzheimer's). 

Using this for autism would be a more complicated story.  Might one be able to teach a person, by another person's memory, how to tell whether someone is lying?  Perhaps some memories of the appropriate level of eye contact would be a good reference to have in one's brain.  Or a "standard playbook" of things to say in specific social situations, as shown in a set of memories, might smooth our way to handling those situations in our own lives.  (Things like "I'm sorry for your loss" when told someone's family member has died, for example, or small talk about the weather). 

Heck, I've often envied my doctor's ability to take in the details of a person from head to toe, recognizing signs of inflammation, depression, anxiety, and other conditions.  Might that, with sufficient numbers of memories to compare by, also be transferable?  We don't, as of yet, have any idea what the human brain's maximum capacity is.  Things that are forgotten are never truly gone, they're simply misplaced and the brain can't find them any more. 

It'll be interesting to see if this research can be replicated, and if it'll take off and become something remarkably useful to humans.  Even with the advancing rate of technology, I'll still probably be 50 before that happens, but if Alzheimer's is still around then, I'd love to not worry about losing my most important memories should I develop it.  And future autistic people might not have to struggle so hard with social situations. 

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