Memory RNA

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Memory RNA is a form of RNA that was proposed by James V. McConnell and others in the 1960s as a means of explaining how long-term memories are stored in the brain. The concept behind it was that since RNA encoded information, and since living cells could produce and modify RNA in reaction to external events, it might also be used in neurons to record stimuli.[1][2][3]

One experiment that was purported to show a chemical basis for memory involved training planaria (flatworms) to solve an extremely simple "maze", then grinding them up and feeding them to untrained planaria to see if they would be able to learn more quickly. The experiment seemed to show such an effect, but it was later suggested that only sensitization was transferred,[4] or that no transfer occurred and the effect was due to stress hormones in the donor or pheromone trails left on dirty lab glass.[1] Other experiments seem to support the original findings in that some memories may be stored outside the brain.[5][6]

In fiction[edit]

Memory RNA made some appearances in the science fiction of the time, often in the form of "skill pills" containing memory RNA that provided the consumer with new skills, or in the context of mind transfer. This concept shows up in several of Larry Niven's short stories and various episodes of The Invisible Man (2000 TV series).

A few Star Trek novels during the 1980s employed memory RNA as a plot device to allow a character to rapidly learn an alien language, in the form of an "RNA drip". The novel "Mighty Good Road" by Melissa Scott and a sequel also use it. Further, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Violations", Data claims that memory is stored in RNA sequences, analogous to his memory circuits.

The basic principle of the memory RNA was also used by comic book writer Alan Moore to explain the origin of DC Comics' character the Swamp Thing in Saga of the Swamp Thing #21. In the story, believing the creature to be dead, a scientist super-villain performs an autopsy on the Swamp Thing and discovers that it is not scientist Alec Holland turned into a plant mutant, but swamp vegetation that after digesting the mortal remains of Holland, had absorbed his mind, knowledge, memories, and skills and created a new sentient being that believed itself to be Alec Holland. The planaria experiment is used in the story to back this theory.


  1. ^ a b Bob Kentridge. "Investigations of the cellular bases of memory". University of Durham. Retrieved 2011-03-03.
  2. ^ McFarling,STAT, Usha Lee. "Memory Transferred between Snails, Challenging Standard Theory of How the Brain Remembers". Scientific American. Retrieved 2019-03-10.
  3. ^ Dave, Shivani (2018-05-14). "'Memory transplant' achieved in snails". Retrieved 2019-03-10.
  4. ^ William L. Mikulas. "Physiology of Learning". University of West Florida. Archived from the original on 2017-11-27. Retrieved 2011-03-03.
  5. ^ Duhaime-Ross, Arielle (17 September 2013). "Flatworms Recall Familiar Environs, Even after Losing Their Heads". Scientific American. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
  6. ^ Shomrat T, Levin M (2013-07-02). "An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planaria and its persistence through head regeneration". The Journal of Experimental Biology. 216 (20): 3799–3810. doi:10.1242/jeb.087809. PMID 23821717.