These Deadly Jellyfish Could Help Us Understand Our Own Brains

  • Researchers have confirmed for the first time that jellyfish can learn in complex ways and adapt their behavior based on that learning.
  • Although jellyfish have no brains and only about 1,000 neurons, they can learn things through trial and error as quickly as a mouse.
  • Research is currently underway to figure out how they do this and what it tells us about our own brains.

We all have a pretty good idea what a jellyfish is, right? Just squishy, ​​gelatinous, sometimes painful, sometimes deadly chunks floating aimlessly in the ocean. Is it? Are there thoughts in their non-existent brains?

Now, it turns out that while I wasn’t wrong about the fluffy, floaty, or sometimes deadly part, I was actually wrong about the “not thinking” part. Because, according to a new study published in the journal current biologyDespite the fact that jellyfish do not have brains and their entire nervous system consists of about 1,000 cells (the human brain has about 100 billion), jellyfish are able to learn.

Yes, that’s right. Jellyfish appear to have advanced learning abilities. “It was once thought that jellyfish could only manage the simplest forms of learning, which involve habituation, the ability to become accustomed to a particular stimulus, such as a certain sound or a certain touch,” one of the researchers said. Anders Garm says: The research results were stated in a press release. “We found that jellyfish have much more sophisticated learning abilities and can actually learn from their mistakes, and in doing so change their behavior.”

“For basic neuroscience, this is pretty big news. It provides a new perspective on what can be done with a simple nervous system,” Garm continued. “This suggests that advanced learning may have been one of the most important evolutionary advantages of the nervous system from the beginning.”

Researchers observed the Caribbean box jellyfish, a jelly with a deadly sting, described in a press release as “a jellyfish the size of a fingernail,” and wondered what these sacs of neurons were actually capable of. I understand what you have.

They found that in the wild, individuals adopt specific hunting strategies in and around mangrove trees. Although mangrove roots are dangerous for jellyfish’s fragile bodies, they are also a perfect home for plankton, the jellyfish’s favorite food. Therefore, the creatures needed to be able to get close enough to the mangroves without hitting the roots.

It turns out that the jellyfish was able to determine how far apart these roots were by seeing how sharp the contrast was with the surrounding water, using 24 eyes, which is frankly too many. If the contrast was high enough, the jellies could realize that they were getting too close and jump to the side to avoid the roots.

Now, the contrast changes every day. For example, on days when the water is very clear, roots can be seen from a great distance in sharp contrast to the surrounding liquid. On cloudy days, the organism must get quite close to the roots until the contrast is clearly visible.

By recreating various murky conditions in the lab, researchers confirmed that jellyfish learn exactly how close they can get to roots each day before they need to change course. did it. According to the study, the jellies took an average of three to five “failures” to hit the roots that day to find out how close they could get without colliding. Interestingly, Garm highlighted in a news release that this is about the same amount of trial and error it takes for a mouse to learn something and adapt its behavior accordingly.

And mice have the evolutionary advantage of having brains.

Now that we know that these creatures, with their disparate and extremely simple neural structures, can truly learn and adapt their behavior, we can begin to understand exactly how they manage this feat. Research has begun to find out.

“We are currently in the process of identifying exactly which cells are involved in learning and memory formation,” Garm said in a press release.

“Understanding something as mysterious and highly complex as the brain is in itself absolutely amazing,” he continued. “But there are so many useful possibilities that it is unimaginable. A big problem in the future will definitely be the various forms of dementia. I have no idea that we are discovering a cure for dementia. I don’t claim to, but if we can better understand what memory is, which is the central problem in dementia, we may be able to lay the foundation for a better understanding of the disease. It will cancel it out.”

Surprisingly, it appears that one of the keys to a deeper understanding of our brains may be creatures that don’t have brains at all.

Jackie Appel photo

Jackie is a writer and editor from Pennsylvania. She particularly likes writing about space and physics, and she loves sharing the strange wonders of the universe with anyone who wants to hear. She is watched over by her two cats in her home office.

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