It has been a long time a-coming but it has finally dawned on me that I am totally unsuited for the wacky world of academia. Take crystal meths, the drug of choice, it seems, of Non Executive Chairmen of British financial institutions and Canadian mayors. Proponents of the drug claim that it enhances self-esteem and sexual pleasure. On the other hand, it is highly addictive and is a habit that is difficult to break.
What seems to make it a particularly difficult drug to get off is that as an amphetamine based narcotic it enhances memory and the pleasurable sensations users experience become deeply ingrained in those recollections they associate with the drug. The impact of crystal meths on the memory is, naturally, an area for psychological research. O.K, I’m with this so far.
But the type of logical quantum leap needed to carry out this line of research is quite beyond my poor grey cells to contemplate, as this report of some research into the matter reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology in May 2010 and coming to my attention at a snail’s pace, amply illustrates.
Barbara Sorg of the Washington State University started pondering on this problem and decided, as only a true denizen of the groves of Academe would do, that the only way to further human understanding was to study the effect of crystal meth on the memory of Lymnaea stagnalis, the humble pond snail.
A stroke of genius, I would say. It would never have crossed my mind to make this connection. After all, ignoramus that I am, I had never associated snails with much of a memory nor, it has to be said, with the ability to communicate their thoughts and sensations.
It seems that this poor mollusc has a very simple neuron network compared with humans but holds memories about when to breathe through their breathing tubes. They breathe through their skins when oxygen levels are high but extend their breathing tubes above the water’s surface when oxygen supplies are low. Dropping the snails into de-oxygenated meth-laced water they found a dosage (1 and 3.3·μmol·l-1 meth, if you want to try it at home) which induced the molluscs to stop raising their breathing tubes.
Having altered their short-term behaviour, what about the impact on the snails’ long-term behaviour? The researchers trained the snails to remember to keep their breathing tubes closed when oxygen levels were low by poking them with a stick every time they tried to open them. They subjected the poor molluscs to this training twice an hour for a period of 24 hours, the period that snails can hold a memory for.
When, 24 hours later, the scientists dropped the molluscs in de-oxygenated water they found that they had forgotten their training and sought to open their breathing tubes. But when meths was introduced back into the water, their behaviour changed.
The researchers then decided to test whether exposure to crystal meths actually improved the snails’ memories. It did – exposure to meths allowed them to remember training that normally they would have forgotten. More intriguingly, memories associated with meths seemed more powerful than other memories.
A brief resume like this cannot do justice to the sheer brilliance of this research. The take away for ordinary Joes like me is that memories formed as a result of exposure to amphetamines such as crystal meths are strong, recur in environments which the user associates with taking the drug and can improve memory. The world is a better place for knowing this.
On a practical level, and for the peace of mind of our garden molluscs, I won’t hide my stash in the garden pond!
If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links