The Frontal Cortex

Moths and Memory

This is crazy stuff:

A new study finds that moths can remember things they learned when they were caterpillars — even though the process of metamorphosis essentially turns their brains and bodies to soup.

The implications of the PLOS study extend far beyond the world of moths and butterflies. For instance, one of the fundamental (and unresolved) mysteries of memory is how our memories persist. The cells of the brain, like all cells, are in constant flux. The average half-life of a brain protein is only 14 days. Our hippocampal neurons die, and are reborn, the mind in a constant state of reincarnation. And yet, we somehow manage to preserve our sense of the past. Like a moth, we maintain our memories in the face of constant metamorphosis.


  1. #1 dileffante
    March 10, 2008

    Crazy indeed. The process in the cocoon is so complex and involves so much “deconstruction”, that (I read somewhere) sometimes you may get two moths out of just one caterpillar. And yet there is memory preserved in between! My threshold for being amazed by a study is quite high nowadays, but this one did it.

  2. #2 Monado, FCD
    March 10, 2008

    That brings back old memories of RNA learning and “professor-burgers.”

  3. #3 globalizati
    March 11, 2008


    Question–I’m in a Molecular and Cell Biology course right now that touches on some discussion of neurological disorders (mostly Alzheimer’s) and my professor (who is not a neuroscientist) said the other day that she had a discussion with a neuroscientist about what exactly a memory is, in terms of neuroscience, and that the expert replied “I could give you a long explanation, but we basically don’t know.” Would you say that is accurate? If not, how would you answer the question “What is a memory?” based on the latest neuroscience research. Thanks!

  4. #4 ryan
    March 11, 2008

    Well, the authors acknowledge the possibility that “the results from our differential timing of larval training are consistent with the idea that retention of memory could be due to the persistence into adulthood of intact larval synaptic connections.”

    So the brain-as-soup observation might not be quite soooo amazing. Still pretty damn cool, though.

    And I’ve heard it commented that remembering something is not very different from experiencing it for the first time (neurologically speaking; can’t find the ref right now).

  5. #5 Whatsmynamenow
    March 12, 2008

    This is so unbelievably cool!