Scientists Transplant Memories: Implications for Behavior Analysis

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Memory is a huge topic for behavior analysts.  A quick search of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, for instance, reveals 772 articles on the topic.  B.F. Skinner himself conceptualized memory behaviorally as “remembering” and treated it as simply another type of behavior under contextual control.

The neural substrates of memory, and behavior in general, fit nicely into the behavior analytic worldview as well.  Skinner, for instance, discussed the importance of the nervous system as a necessary condition for behavior, and pointed out that the organism changes biologically from one instance of reinforcement to the next.  Moreover, behavior analysts have published work in recent years in the area of brain, behavior, and memory.

But few behavior analysts discuss the possibility of transplanting memories from one individual to another, and this is what a team of neurobiologists at UCLA recently reported in the journal eNeuro.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Transplanting memories, like Tyrell Corporation did with it’s Replicants in Blade Runner Arnold Swarzenegger’s “vacation” experience in Total Recall, or Trinity’s downloading of knowledge to instantly fly a helicopter in The Matrix.

More specifically, the team implemented a sensitization procedure on a snail via electric shock.  In other words, after a series of electric shocks to the tail, the snail sensitized such that it’s responses would be exaggerated and would react to even normal touches as if they were shocks.

The team then extracted a bit of RNA from the trained snail and implanted it into a new snail.  The new snail then exhibited sensitization responses similar to the original snail – without having a history of sensitization training.  The researchers point to eventual implications for treating dementia and other conditions characterized by memory loss in humans.

While behavior analysts might not say “the snail had a memory of the shock”, the point remains that a bit of biological substrate underpinning behavior was transplanted into another organism which substituted for a learning history.

What could be the implications of memory transplants for common areas of behavior analysis, such as autism, organizational behavior management, or education?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at

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  1. While I can certainly appreciate how exciting this new research may sound, and the potential it brings for ‘healing’, we need to step back and remind ourselves of the complex moral issues involved. One of the things that makes us unique as individuals is our life experiences, and hence our memories. And in fact those memories help shape who we are today. I have PTSD. I developed PTSD during the many years I spent in the war in Afghanistan. Consequently, as I’m sure you can imagine, I have MANY painful memories, VERY painful memories! Do the affect me? Yes, all the time. Do they impact my life and my behaviour? Yes, every day! But do I want those memories gone? NO!! My Psychologist as me that one time. I told him I didn’t want them gone because then I would have to lose the good memories of that same time period too. To lose a painful memory of a friend killed in action means I would have to lose the good memories I had with that friend. The two are actually one memory! While it sounds great to be able to replace memories, or even modify them, it is actually extremely problematic, because we have no way of knowing or controlling the outcome. It is like going back in time and changing one small detail… you end up changing the whole world!

  2. It was a quite impressive research. But the interpretation that was given provides a plausible example of the harm made by cognitive theories. The case is not about transplanting memories, but transplanting genetic material. This genetic material is the one of an organism changed by the interaction with its environment. It would be really amazing to be proved that such a learning history can be incorporated into another organism, but this is what it is and nothing more.
    Regarding a potential transplant of DNA that might permit someone to experience (ie, in the form of seeing them in their absence) moments of another organism’s history, I doubt weather it would be ever possible. Yet it would be challenging and awesome.

  3. Dr. Ward, don’t get too excited. This is just epigenetics. The researchers seemingly only proved that they were able to transfer a methyl tag in RNA from one Aplysia to another Aplysia. The question is: Were all Aplysia from the same generation?

    It’s a sensitization training. Epigenetics have already discussed the transfer of methyl tags from generation to generation. A mother may transfer to her kids a trait that will allow the kids to be more hypersensitive. Of course, I’m not talking technical terms, but epigenetics have already discussed this.

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