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18 October 2012
Snails are an underrated creature. Yes, a few snails climbing up the outside of your flower pots may lack the grandeur of a herd of wildebeest sweeping across the African savannah. Admittedly, a snail on its way up your window may not have the breath-taking beauty of an eagle on the wing. Yet there is a certain quiet sense of dignity and calm purpose about the snail. If you look carefully into the feeler of a snail you may not see the same spark of intelligence there that you will find in a chimpanzee but there is brain at work, a slimey one, but a brain nonetheless, and it can be enhanced by the very same thing that will give a human brain a boost: chocolate.
Researchers from the University of Calgary have proven this recently by studying pond snails (Lymnaea stagnalis). These snails have breathing tubes that they can be trained to keep closed when they are in water that is low, or completely devoid, of oxygen. The pond snails usually breathe through their skins but when oxygen levels fall they extend their breathing tube above the surface to supplement their oxygen supply. They can be trained to keep the breathing tube closed though, even in deoxygenated water, by tapping it when they try to open it. Training in this way for half an hour will create a memory in the snail not to open its breathing tube that will last for at least three hours but not more than 24 hours.
To see how epicatechin, a flavonoid from chocolate, might influence memory formation the researchers added a concentration to the water of 15mg of epicatechin per millimetre of water. The arrived at this level as it was one that they established did not result in changes in snail behaviour so the snails did not just become “wired” on epicatechin.
They found that in the presence of epicatechin snail memories lasted for more than a day after one half hour training session. When they gave them two half hour training sessions, the memories lasted for more than three days. They also found that these memories could not be extinguished by having another memory overwritten. Having trained the snails and then trying to replace the memory with a new memory to open their tubes, the snails exposed to epicatechin clung to their first memory.
This could make chocolate a very handy thing on the snail dating scene because when you are an hermaphrodite, you can choose the sex you want to be depending on who you are mating with at the time. Now that, is something you will want to remember next time you meet.