Seaford student researches memory of snails

Freshman's flavonoid project has applications to human dementia, Alzheimer's

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A Seaford High School freshman decided to research a unique topic as part of the school’s Science Research program during the 2018-19 school year: the memory capabilities of pond snails.

“Not a lot of people decide to train pond snails,” Madison Elias, 14, said in something of an understatement.

Madison explained that she tested the effect of green tea on the long-term memory of the great pond snail — a freshwater gastropod found not only in North America, but also in parts of Europe and Northern Asia.

Green tea contains health-promoting compounds called flavonoids, according to the Health and Tea website. Scientists theorize that flavonoids improve the memory of humans, Madison said. “So I wanted to take the green tea, because it had those flavonoids in it,” she said, “and I wanted to test it on the snails to see if it could actually improve their memory.”

She used a procedure known as conditioned taste aversion to train the snails, while they lived in green tea, to avoid eating sucrose, after she fed them potassium as well. “How you achieve the CTA procedure is, you give the snail a sweet taste, and then a bitter one, so that they’ll remember in the future, if they were to get the sucrose again, that it was followed by a really bitter taste,” she explained. “So they’ll actually avoid the sucrose.”

Madison measured the number of bites the snails took to see the results. She created a chart tracking the results of the snails that were trained while living in pond water compared with those trained while living in green tea. All of the snails in the green tea remembered the training procedure in every trial. “It actually improved their memory,” she said, “so I thought that was really cool.”

Behavior and memory are topics that interest Madison. She said the aging neurons in the snails are analogous to age-associated memory diseases in humans, and she was able to find a link between the neurons and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. “If we can understand how to improve and control memory in the snail,” she said, “we can apply that to patients with Alzheimer’s [and] dementia.”

She chose to study snails because, she wrote in a text, “The snails are also easy to train and easy to care for.”

Madison said she was in contact with Kenneth Lukowiak, a scientist and a professor in the physiology and pharmacology department at the University of Calgary in Alberta, who works with great pond snails. Madison and her Science Research teachers, Mary Simons and Janine Cupo, contacted Lukowiak, and Madison said, “He had another scientist friend in Maine who was able to send us these snails.”

She worked with four or five adult snails and several hundred baby snails. “I haven’t counted the babies, because in each egg mass there are at least 50 to 120 of them,” she said.

Students in the Science Research program choose topics to research and focus on for the entire school year. “Toward the end of the year, we start going to several competitions,” Madison said, “and we compete against other schools and their Science Research programs, and that’s really fun.”

For her project, she won the Future Scientist of the Year award at the South Asian American Women’s Alliance fair on March 31 at the Merrick Golf Course. Less than two weeks later, at the Long Island Science Congress at St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington, she won the Most Distinguished Categorical Project award as well as highest honors. She was also selected to represent Long Island in the New York State Science Congress, at Syracuse’s Museum of Science and Technology, at the beginning of June, and won highest honors there as well.

Madison said it is important for children to study science-related topics when they’re young. “[They] are going to take these ideas and carry them with them,” she said.

She saw a student from another science research program with a project focusing on cancer. “She might take that idea and she might be the one to cure cancer,” Madison said. “It’s the development of ideas now that can benefit the future in the long run.”

The program, Simons said, is divided into two sections — the introductory section, which includes roughly 14 students, and the older group, which includes five or six students. Madison was part of the introductory group this year, and will join the older section as a sophomore in the fall. “It was amazing to see the growth that Madison went through,” Simons said.

Madison’s father, Christopher Elias, said she has been making her family — which includes her mother, Kerri, and her sister, 11-year-old Kayleigh — proud since she was in pre-school. “She’ll never understand how proud we really are,” he said.