The human body has feet, arms, a spine, a heart and a brain. In comparison, an octopus has eight arms, blue blood, no bones and a bulbous head. Given these many differences, what could an octopus and a human have in common? The answer lies in the brain.
Through extensive research, scientists have concluded that octopuses and other cephalopods, such as squids and cuttlefish, boast an incredibly complex nervous system. Cephalopods have up to 500 million neurons in their brains, aiding their impressive capacity to learn, remember and exhibit personality.
Dr. Jennifer Mather, University of Lethbridge professor and author of Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate (2010), began her pioneering research on cephalopods in the 1980s. She discovered that octopuses obtain food through a complex set of steps. An octopus can leave its inhabiting den in a direction that leads them to the easiest prey to catch. The next day, the animal might choose another pathway to find food, avoiding predators and competing animals. It’ll also regularly sweep its den before moving to another location with more resources, such as food and water. Mather concluded that cephalopods often sit at the top of their respective food chains. This is due to their advanced spatial memory (to find the way back home after foraging) and impressive planning skills.
These intelligent, mysterious creatures are helping scientists gain a better understanding of how the human body might react to stimuli, anything that can trigger a physical or behavioral change. This information can help treat various diseases and facilitate advancements through research. By studying the anatomy and physiology of organisms that share certain characteristics, scientists can predict behaviors and outcomes of clinical trials, research experiments and more.
Dr. Christine Huffard is a senior research specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. She also studies cephalopods as a biological/health model. Scientists such as Dr. Huffard are applying their research to demystify expansive and sophisticated questions outside of the field. Her paper, “Cephalopod Neurobiology: An Introduction for Biologists Working in Other Model Systems,” analyzes the major aspects of cephalopod biology and behavior. Cephalopods are evolving as a model system to better understand color change, behaviors, evolution and more in neurobiology.
“Learning about cephalopods helps us understand the many ways animals have evolved to solve nature’s biggest puzzle: how to survive and reproduce in changing environments,” Huffard writes.
Cephalopod behavior can be analyzed to develop novel cancer treatments. In the journal article, “Targeting Epithelial–Mesenchymal Transition (EMT) to Overcome Drug Resistance in Cancer,” Bowen Du and Joong Sup Shim summarize a study involving octopus stem cells to conclude the effectiveness of EMT, a cancer treatment currently under extensive study. The ultimate goal of this study is to tackle the drug resistance crisis.
Scientists at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences used inspiration from cephalopods to build soft, flexible robots as opposed to conventional robots constructed of hard materials such as metals. By creating their design to mimic a cephalopod’s complex body structure, Harvard scientists were able to build high-caliber models, never seen before. This project was inspired by the intricate neural and physical network seen in many cephalopods.
Dr. Huffard and many other professionals across various fields are optimistic about the bright future that research in cephalopods may bring. Cephalopods continue to supply the world of neurobiology with their relatable lessons, extravagant mechanisms and advanced structure of their brains and tentacles. From cancer research to building flexible robotic arms, cephalopods are expanding our knowledge of the brain every day.
- Through extensive research, scientists have concluded that octopuses and other cephalopods, such as squids and cuttlefish, boast an incredibly complex nervous system.
- Cephalopods have up to 500 million neurons in their brains, aiding their impressive capacity to learn, remember and exhibit personality.
- These intelligent, mysterious creatures are helping scientists gain a better understanding of how the human body might react to stimuli, information that can help treat various diseases and facilitate advancements through research.
Fiorito, G., Affuso, A., Anderson, D. B., Basil, J., Bonnaud, L., Botta, G., Cole, A., D’Angelo, L., De Girolamo, P., Dennison, N., Dickel, L., Di Cosmo, A., Di Cristo, C., Gestal, C., Fonseca, R., Grasso, F., Kristiansen, T., Kuba, M., Maffucci, F., … Andrews, P. (2014, January 3). Cephalopods in neuroscience: Regulations, research and the 3rs. Invertebrate Neuroscience. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10158-013-0165-x.
O’Brien, C. E., Roumbedakis, K., & Winkelmann, I. E. (1AD, January 1). The current state of CEPHALOPOD science and perspectives on the most critical challenges ahead from THREE early-career researchers. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2018.00700/full.
Huffard, C. (2013). Cephalopod neurobiology: an introduction for biologists working in other model systems. Europe pmc. https://europepmc.org/article/med/23456288.
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Phoebe Hall is the assistant director of biomedical communications at Brown University. She is the staff writer for Medicine@Brown magazine, covering health and science research and clinical work by faculty, alumni, and students. She earned her bachelor’s in ecology and evolutionary biology at UConn and her master’s from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.
Christine Huffard, Ph.D is a Research Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. Dr. Huffard studies deep-sea animals and their ecological impacts at the California coast. Find more information about her at https://www.mbari.org/huffard-christine/.