Before all of you start grabbing the buzz saw and testing this theory over a game of Pictionary, perhaps you should know that this study was done on flatworms, not humans. Although many flatworms actually have the same organs and bilateral symmetry as humans along with the same neurotransmitters, which is probably why biologists Michael Levin and Tal Shomrat of Tufts University initiated their research in information processing on these little weird-looking creatures.
As many of you guys already know from playing Earthworm Jim on Sega Genesis, flatworms have an incredible ability to regenerate entire body parts when severed, including their brains — which makes them the perfect subject for a study regarding decapitation and memory retention. It’s also important to note that according to Michael Levin, flatworms ‘have many of the same neurotransmitters as we do, and have been shown in older studies to remember complex tasks.’
So here’s what Michael Levin and Tal Shomrat did and why it will probably blow your mind after reading it.
Flatworms have a genetic predisposition to avoid light since it makes them vulnerable to predators. The biologists put flatworms in a scenario in which the lighted areas were safe and held food while the dark areas had no food and were met with a punishment. The cruelty, PETA is going to be angry about this one.
They also placed food on a specific laser etched surface so that these flatworms will associate the ‘feel’ of this surface with food.
Once the flatworms were trained, Michael Levin severed their heads and waited 14 days for them to grow back. What they found was memory persists in the worm for at least two weeks, long enough for them to regrow a brain. They also discovered the worms that had their heads decapitated remembered how and where to find the food just as accurately as the flatworms that didn’t have their heads chopped off.
The greatest thing is Michael Levin has no idea how this is all possible.
We have no idea. 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.
We’ve established a new model system in which our future work will be able to figure out how memories get encoded and decoded to and from living tissues.
According to their research article in the Journal of Experimental Biology, they expect this discovery to lead to ‘important implications for the biomedicine of stem cell-derived treatments of degenerative brain disorders in human adults.’ Big thanks to National Geographic for the find.