National Geographic

Starving Flies Must Shut Down Long-Term Memories or Die

Here’s something that people often forget about memories—they are expensive. Whenever we create new ones, and possibly whenever we recall old memories, our brain needs to manufacture new proteins in its neurons. This consumes a lot of energy, which partly explains why the brain demands proportionally more fuel than other organ. And even if we’re short of energy, the brain gets first dibs.

But the brain can also prioritise its various jobs. By studying flies, Pierre-Yves Placais and Thomas Preat from the CNRS in Paris found that starving individuals disable the creation of unpleasant long-term memories.

Such memories might be a useful investment for the future, but the starving flies are about to die right now. Laying down expensive memories is a luxury they cannot afford, and if Placais and Preat forced them to do so, they died faster. For the flies, building certain memories actually compromised their survival—a striking reminder that the brain is subject to the same fine checks and balances that the rest of the body obeys.

Placais and Preat trained flies to associate a smell with an electric shock, and then exposed them to cycloheximide—a chemical that stops the brain from building the proteins necessary for long-term memory. If the flies had been fed, the chemical worsened their memories, as expected. But if they hadn’t eaten for 24 hours, cycloheximide did nothing. Likewise, mutant flies that find it hard to build long-term memories were worse than normal flies at learning about the electric shocks, but only if they were fed. If they were hungry, their genetic disadvantage didn’t matter.

It’s not that the hungry flies were stressed and just feeling mentally slower all round. Their condition didn’t affect another type of memory that is shorter-term, cheaper, and does not depend on making new proteins. Instead, they were responding to their hunger by adaptively shutting down one very specific type of memory.

Flies depend on two special neurons to make long-term memories, and Placais and Preat found that both of these are unusually silent when the insects are starving. The duo deliberately activated these neurons by infusing them with temperature-sensitive proteins, which made them fire at anything above 28 Celsius. When this happened, the starved flies regained the ability to make enduring memories.

But they paid a heavy cost. By forcibly bringing the flies’ disabled memories back online, Placais and Preat shortened their lives by about a third. This only happened if they were trained to link the shocks and the smells. If they were exposed to only smells, or only shocks, or given nothing at all to learn, they were fine. It was the combination of training and memory-making that doomed them.

The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, by George Novak

These results fit with earlier work from Swiss scientist Frederic Mery. He showed that flies that make long-term memories are more vulnerable to harsh environments, and that breeding male flies to have better long-term memory also shortens their lives. “It’s very surprising that things are apparently so clean and simple,” says Preat. “If the animal is starved, the brain blocks LTM formation; otherwise, death occurs faster.”

But of course, things aren’t quite that simple. Starving flies can still make long-term memories of pleasant experiences, such as linking smells with food. Indeed, these “appetitive memories” only seem to form if flies are hungry, which is why scientists who run experiments involving such memories have to starve their insects first. This makes sense. Flies only get the chance to build appetitive memories once they’ve actually found some food, so they can immediately pay the energetic cost of making fresh proteins. It’s only “aversive memories” of unpleasant experiences that aren’t worth creating.

Meanwhile, over in Japan, Yukinori Hirano was running a similar set of studies at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science that complement but complicate the results from the French team. He found that fasting improves long-term memory in flies, but only if the insects go hungry for less than 16 hours. Any longer, and those same memories shut down, as in Placais and Preat’s experiment.

And the surprises kept coming. Hirano found that this improved long-term memory is actually different from the vanilla version that the flies normally use—it forms after a single round of training but decays after a shorter time. These two flavours of long-term memory also depend on different (if slightly overlapping) sets of molecules and neurons.

The two studies paint a complicated picture, but both support a single core theme: Flies can prioritise different types of memory depending on how hungry they are.

And the obvious million-dollar question: Does we and other mammals do the same thing? Both teams are trying to find out, but they think the answer is yes. “It’s very likely because all the basic mechanisms of brain functioning have been conserved during evolution,” says Preat.

Reference: Placais & Preat. To Favor Survival Under Food Shortage, the Brain Disables Costly Memory. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1226018

Hirano, Masuda, Naganos, Matsuno, Ueno, Miyashita, Horiuchi & Saitoe. 2013. Fasting Launches CRTC to Facilitate Long-Term Memory Formation in Drosophila. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1227170

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There are 4 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. js
    January 24, 2013

    “Both teams are trying to find out, but they the answer is yes.” => “Both teams are trying to find out, but they the answer is yes.”

  2. Dave Whitlock
    January 25, 2013

    This is very interesting, but I suspect that it isn’t about memory per se, bur rather it is about what the flies do with that memory (which is the only point of having memories).

    The memory they tested and which this worked for, was a highly aversive memory, pairing of a smell with an electric shock. The only point of such a memory is to trigger physiological changes, to trigger fight-or-flight.

    Triggering fight-or-flight is physiologically costly. It does require protein synthesis to generate transcription factors and new proteins to do whatever new physiological tasks that the fight-or-flight state requires. Doing those things in a nutritionally deprived state would shorten lifespan because it diverts resources away from things that extend lifespan (because fight-or-flight diverts resources to survive predation which is certain death if not avoided).

    A test they should do is does triggering fight-or-flight under conditions of starvation also cause shortening of lifespan, and does inhibition of protein synthesis during starvation while triggering fight-or-flight rescue the shortened lifespan. I suspect that it would, indicating that the issue is not so much with memory, it is with the cost /benefit trade-off of triggering fight-or-flight under conditions of starvation.

    If starvation inhibits entering the fight-or-flight state, it would also very likely inhibit forming memories that trigger the fight-or-flight state (because that state was never entered) and memories are just a short-cut way of triggering fight-or-flight.

    I suspect that the male/female difference represents the level of physiological resources required to be devoted to reproduction (higher in females). This limits the degree of resources that can be allocated to fight-or-flight (higher in males).

    The long term selection for LTM is probably selecting for easier triggering of the fight-or-flight state. That would select for shorter lifespan because entering the fight-or-flight state does shorten lifespan.

  3. Taylor Sparks
    February 12, 2013

    What an interesting article! It’s amazing what the brain can do in a survival situation such as this, and it also shows what a toll some of the brain’s processes can take on our body. Maybe this research would be useful in helping PTSD survivors forget certain elements their traumatic memories? What a wonderful breakthrough that would be.

  4. vince
    February 27, 2013

    it might be too late but i’d be interested in rates of Post traumatic stress disorder in WW2 prisoners. Maybe prisoners who were starved have less PTSD???

    and dieting might be a cure for PTSD ???

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