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Animal Loses Head But Remembers Everything

Thursday, January 02, 2014 - 10:13 AM

When I first saw this," says cell biologist Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado, "it was with total amazement."

Robert Krulwich/NPR

This is a worm. It's called a planarian. It's about an inch long, and you'll find it gliding along the bottoms of rivers and ponds all over the world. It's very flat, like a moving bit of pasta — nothing special to look at, but it has a hidden talent that has made it famous. It can regrow its body parts better than almost any other animal on Earth. So if by some chance something bites its head off ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

... or removes its tail, or zaps its head and its tail simultaneously ...


Robert Kruwlich/NPR

... the dangling middle piece will, within a couple of weeks, grow both its front and its back to full size. Meanwhile, the severed head, if left alone, will also generate a full-sized new worm. The lonesome tail will do that, too, so where you started with one worm, you'll now have three. This worm likes to regenerate.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

You can even remove a single, special cell from an adult planarian (not an infant cell, but a cell taken from a mature adult), and from that one cell, scientists discovered a few years ago, the worm can regenerate a whole new creature — the skin, guts, nerves, muscle, eyes, mouth, everything. It will be genetically identical to the donor.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

How do they do this? How does a random slice of worm (often with no brain, just a clump of meat, says Alvarado — "I mean, really, it's a piece of flesh") figure out where its front is, where its bottom is? Clearly, this is a genetically driven talent, but do we know which genes, how many genes are involved?

No, we don't. Intriguingly, we share a bunch of genes with these flatworms. If we ever figure out how they do it, we might be able to pick up a few of their tricks, which are astounding to see. Just click below, in a video from San Francisco's Exploratorium, to watch a severed head grow back a body, and — my favorite — see a worm sliced down the middle like a banana split create its other half. Professor Alvarado is the swooning narrator.

Credit: Exploratorium, San Francisco

But we haven't gotten to the most remarkable part. Two biologists at Tufts University, curious to learn how this little worm remembers things, decided to do an experiment.

Michael Levin and Tal Shomrat know that planarians don't like light. In the dark, the worms can hide from predators, feel safe and skulk about gathering food. They have those two weird little eye cups — angled, so they seem to be cross-eyed — so these worms can detect light. And when they do, they normally scuttle off (or, in my imagination, cover their eyes).

Robert Krulwich/NPR

But Levin and Shomrat wanted to implant a memory in their laboratory worms, and the memory they decided on was, "Light's OK. Good things happen when you go to lit spaces." To do that, they placed a delicious liver snack on a well-lit plate, and rewarded the worms who ventured close (and punished them if they sought the safety of the dark). So, gradually, their worms began to trust the light, and venture in more quickly.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Then (sorry PETA), they chopped off their heads. That would be mean if they were chopping off, say, Marie Antoinette's head. But remember, these are planarians, so in a couple of weeks the beheaded worms had new heads. What Levin and Shomrat wondered was, did those new heads keep their old memories?

Yes they did!

According to National Geographic's account, after a short refresher course, these worms-with-new-heads "remembered where the light spot was, that it was safe, and that food could be found there. The worms' memories were just as accurate as those worms who had never lost their heads."

Robert Krulwich/NPR

So these worms grew new heads with old memories, a remarkable finding, particularly when you consider it took 14 days or so for the head to grow back. How'd the worms do it? Once again, "We have no idea," Michael Levin told National Geographic. Since these animals were briefly brainless after their decapitation, he says, "What we do know is that memory can be stored outside the brain — presumably in other body cells — so that [memories] can get imprinted onto the new brain as it regenerates."

The unanswered questions here are so fascinating. "When I see a planarian," says Professor Alvarado, "I just see a big void of mystery." How does an animal know how to build itself? Is there a body plan in the brain? In our cells? Which cells? What triggers those cells? Could we ever do this? Could we ever build what the worms have into ourselves? Questions, questions, questions and, so far, hardly any answers.

But the worms — they know.

The mysteries of the planarian are so cool, there's a "regeneration" T-shirt that celebrates these worms. I found it here.


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Comments [5]

stanley b klein

Sadly typical incoherence. And on public radio. I am losing any faith in that venue (the best of a bad lot?).

"experiments" like these -- and they have been around a very long time -- should be calling to serious question what words like "memory" and, more ridiculously, "remembering" refer to. But as psychological "science" is so adept at, we avoid the serious question in search of a sexy demonstration. I submit -- not just in blog sphere but in serious journal venues (e.g., WIREs Cog Sci, in press] that, as some philosophers (certainly not enough) are all too aware, we stipulate mental states and their neural bases (e.g., memory) with little if any epistemic or ontic warrant. We then, having reified an aspect of nature via our imaginative stipulation, proceed to study, espouse knowledge and claim govt funds to further our "scientific" chimera. This will have the net effect of rendering psychological science an endangered species when the time comes (and it will) that some serious reflection is possible and we can see just how far from the relevant paths we have strayed.

Very sad state of affairs.

Aug. 15 2014 01:49 PM
Mark Hess

We work with planaria in my high school biology classes - great stuff! I wonder if these "memories" aren't the result of changes to the genome (epigenetics). For example, could the combination of light exposure and food be methylating the DNA in some way - turning on genes that govern future behavior - which is then passed down to dissected "offspring"?

Feb. 13 2014 10:31 AM

the truly frighting thing is that you can easily cut this animal because you know it will regenerate. what will happen when humans have this ability. there is something somewhat macabre about this presentation.

Jan. 12 2014 02:40 PM

About 40 years ago I read about a study of planaria where the researchers taught some learned behavior with electric shocks to some planaria. They then ground up the planaria and fed them to OTHER planaria to see what would happen. The result was that the flatworms that had been fed their cousins (or perhaps in-laws) elicited the same learned behavior as the first group!
My question is,"What am I learning from MY food?" Fun to think about, huh?

Jan. 07 2014 02:46 PM
Lysia from Brooklyn

When I was a junior in high school, I did a science fair/extra credit project to make planaria grow two heads on a single body. While I'm sure my surgical skills were certainly not as good as these scientists, I did manage to keep several specimens alive - and grow a second head. I was fascinated by this phenomenon. Special thanks to my HS bio teacher for helping me order the worms and believing in me!

Jan. 03 2014 09:02 PM

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