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With only 302 neurons, worms can learn?

C. elegans (roundworm)/Salk Institute

From Salk Institute:

“Our research shows that, despite having exactly the same genes and neurons as adults, adolescent roundworms have completely different food-seeking preferences and abilities,” says Sreekanth Chalasani, associate professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory and senior author of the paper published in eNeuro in January 2017. “It is in adulthood that we finally see the worms become more efficient and competent at finding food.”

The microscopic Caenorhabditis elegans worm may seem like an odd source of insight into human brain development. With only 302 neurons to humans’ almost 100 billion, C. elegans is a vastly simpler organism but its basic neurological circuitry has many similarities to ours. And, since scientists have already mapped the adult roundworms’ neurons anatomically and functionally, they can easily perform experiments and trace neural circuits in C. elegans tasks that are not possible in humans, yielding valuable information about both species.

For instance, both worms and people respond to the smell of the chemical diacetyl, known to humans as “buttered popcorn smell,” which is present in a number of foods, including ones in the C. elegans diet. In fact, the worms have a pair of neurons called AWA dedicated to sensing it. To observe behavioral variation between adult and adolescent worms, the Salk team placed the animals in the center of a dish with a drop of diacetyl on one side, and a neutral odor on the other. Then, in a series of trials over several days, they characterized the paths the worms took.

What the scientists saw surprised them: Adolescent worms meandered and took their time getting to the diacetyl, if they got there at all; adult worms made a beeline for it. More.

Something about the way those neurons interact is not at all simple.

See also: C. elegans: That white space in evolutionary thinking is where thinking must stop

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Irreducibly complex behaviour in worms?

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