In the first scientific study, researchers recorded the brain activity of live octopuses that move freely and happily in their octopus acts.
This remarkable feat was accomplished by implanting electrodes into the animals’ brains and data recorders under the skin that could record 12 hours of brain activity. Exactly what the recordings mean has yet to be deciphered, but the research demonstrates a first step in understanding the strange and complex minds of these fascinating sea monsters.
“If we want to understand how the brain works, octopuses are the ideal animal to study compared to mammals,” says octopus researcher Tamar Gutnick from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan and the University of Naples Federico II in Italy.
“They have a large brain, an amazingly unique body, and advanced cognitive abilities that have evolved very differently from those of vertebrates.”
Octopuses are very intelligent and very curious animals. Not only that, she is very mobile, with eight boneless arms, endowed with manipulation and access to skills unparalleled in the animal kingdom.
Therefore, trying to attach anything to an octopus using its entire body is a futile endeavor. And if you want to know how the octopus’s brain works under normal conditions, it has to use its entire body. Non-invasive equipment that adheres to the outside of the body, such as an electrode cap, will not work.
“If we tried to wire them, they would tear them apart,” he said. Gutnik explains“So we needed a way to get the equipment completely out of their reach, by getting it under their skin.”
The solution included electrodes and data recorders designed to record the brain activity of free-flying birds. These devices are often protected by a hard plastic waterproof casing that has a relatively large profile and is therefore unsuitable for transplantation into octopuses, so the team developed a streamlined plastic tubing casing.
For their work, they choose three octopuses of a species Cyan octopusalso known as the great blue octopus, is a large octopus with a cavity inside the mantle – the central part of its body – that can house a data recorder.
The researchers implanted electrodes inside each anesthetized octopus directly into the superior and middle frontal lobes. These electrodes were connected to data recording devices located in the mantle of each octopus.
Each data logger contains a battery that allows for 12 hours of continuous recording. The researchers put the animals back in their tanks and allowed them to wake up and go about their usual activities, with their brain activity monitored. Meanwhile, a video camera was set up to record what they were doing so the researchers could compare the brain activity to each octopus’s behavior.
After the recordings were completed, the researchers euthanized the octopuses and retrieved the data recorders. They identified several long-term patterns of brain activity, including some similar to those seen in mammals. However, the other patterns are unlike anything in the scientific literature.
What they mean is a mystery. Patterns cannot be associated with any of the behaviors shown in the videos. However, this isn’t necessarily surprising. The brain regions to which the electrodes were attached are associated with learning and memory, and the octopuses were not required to perform any learning or memory tasks during the experiment.
This could be the focus of future experiments, perhaps on a broader range of subjects and genres.
“This is a really pivotal study, but it’s just a first step,” he said. says zoologist Michael Cubaformerly at OIST and now at Federico II University of Naples.
“Octopuses are very smart, but right now, we know very little about how their brains work. This technology means we now have the ability to look into their minds as they perform specific tasks. This is really exciting and powerful.”
Research published in Current Biology.
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