Researchers at UCLA have discovered that memories are not stored into synoptical connections, as it was so far known. Synapses are clearly crucial in the memory mechanisms but they demonstrated that you can destroy synaptic connection among neurones, hence destroying the "memory" but if you are reconstructing the synaptic connection the memory comes back, which means that the memory as such is stored somewhere else and the synapses are needed to access it.
David Glanzman, a senior researchers co-authoring the paper, suspects that memories are stored at the level of the nucleus of the neurone but more study and experiments are needed to confirm his idea.
The result has come out from studying a sea snail, Aplysia. This snail has a very simple neural system on which many studies have been made. The UCLA researchers in particular have studied the withdrawal reflex the snail uses to protect its gills. The snail can be trained to learn certain stimuli, like an electric prod on its tail, and behave accordingly. By using specific protein inhibitors it is possible to make the snail forget what it learnt. These inhibitors are basically destroying the synapses (it has been demonstrated that using similar inhibitors hampers the memorisation).
By using a synaptic growth stimulator the researchers showed that the snail got the memory back. QED.
This is a very good news for people suffering from Alzheimer disease: this ailment affects the synaptic connections and the person progressively loses his memories. However, if the memories are not tied to the synaptic connections it should be possible to use a medicine to stimulate the regrowth of the synapses and therefore restore the memories.
Now, this would be great, and even though it will take several more years of studying it is important to know what has to be studied!
The bad news? Well, knowing that we are so similar to a snail at neurone level may be a blow to our pride. Still, that's the way it is. What we learn from a snail can be transferred to our brains....