It seems amazing to think that a species of sea snails can hold the key for scientists to understand how the brain processes learning and enhances memory. If the studies prove to be conclusive the small mollusk could be instrumental in helping people who suffer brain damage from aging, strokes, traumatic brain injury or congenital cognitive impairments.

Neuroscientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) are using the sea snail species, known as “Aplysia californica,” as an animal model to test their innovative new learning strategy, designed to help improve a person’s brain. So far the results have been very encouraging.

Researchers have been using the mollusk to study the human brain because they have fond much in common with other species and humans. The UTHealth “proof-of-principle” study was published on the Nature Neuroscience website on December 25, 2011 showing the snail has been invaluable in providing information on learning and memory. Their next step will be to involve other animal models and eventually humans into their research.

The purpose of the study was to identify the best times for the brain to absorb learning in order for them to find a way to schedule learning sessions that will take advantage of peak performance times to improve memory.

“We found that memory could be enhanced appreciably,” said John H. “Jack” Byrne, Ph.D., senior author and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UTHealth Medical School.

The study is extending earlier research that identified proteins that have been linked to memory. The UTHealth researchers created a mathematical model that informs them when the timing of protein activity coincides with the best time for learning.

Currently the learning sessions are scheduled based on trial and error, and are erratic. If the model proves to be effective in their follow-up studies it could be used to identify the periods of time when learning potential is at its peak.
“When you give a training session, you are starting several different chemical reactions. If you give another session, you get additional effects. The idea is to get the sessions in sync,” Byrne said. “We have developed a way to adjust the training sessions so they are tuned to the dynamics of the biochemical processes.”

In their study, two groups of snails underwent five learning sessions. One group went through their sessions at irregular intervals that had been graphed by a mathematical model. The other groups were trained at regular 20-minute intervals.

Following up five days after the learning sessions were completed the scientists found the snails who were taught according to the mathematical predictions showed significant increase in memory, while those learning at regular intervals had no detectable increase.

“The computer sorted through 10,000 different permutations in order to determine a schedule that would enhance memory,” said Byrne.

In order to confirm their tests, the scientists studied the nerve cells in the brain of the snails and found there was greater activity in those who received the enhanced training schedule, said Byrne.

“This study shows the feasibility of using computational methods to assist in the design of training schedules that enhance memory,” he reported.



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at



CBC News – Snail study date may help improve human memory:

The Jerusalem Post – Can Sea Snails Help to Enhance Memory?