A Brainy Invertebrate with a lot of Heart

Morro Bay Harbor

This year I’ve had more contact with cephalopods than usual.  While this sounds like something that belongs in a movie, (perhaps, Close Encounters of the Third Kind?), the type of alien-ish cephalopod I am referring to is an octopus.  They live in the depths of the ocean, not in deep space.

The first octopus I discovered was washed up on the shore in Morro Bay Harbor in January.  I’ve never found an octopus on the shore before (or in the water).  Something was wrong with it, although it seemed to have a pulse.  A sympathetic surfer, my husband, gave it a ride farther out to sea.  Hopefully, the little one made it.

Octopus

Then, about a week ago, I had my second encounter with an octopus– a giant red one.  He was behind glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  After watching a video presentation, I was struck by how smart and “affectionate” giant Pacific octopuses are.  (Maybe they are so affectionate because they have three hearts?)  A giant Pacific octopus at the Monterey Bay Aquarium was able to differentiate between the aquarists and give “hugs” to his favorite aquarist.

Giant Pacific Octopus at Monterey Bay Aquarium

It is thought that a giant Pacific octopus exhibits a red color to show emotion. I wonder what this one was communicating to the two boys in the red shirts?

I listened to a podcast online and the interviewee from the Monterey Bay Aquarium thought giant Pacific octopuses were as smart, or smarter, than a house cat.  However, I don’t think we will be watching any YouTube videos of octopuses doing “cute” things.  Since they are masters of disguise, you will probably be seeing more videos like the one of an octopus’ stealth moves to enter into a game of tug of war over a diver’s camera.  Maybe the octopus was trying to taste it since they can taste/smell through their suction cups?

An octopus has the biggest brain of all cephalopods.  It has 500 million neurons (we have 100 billion).  Their nuerons are not in once place, like ours, and some neurons run along its eight arms, or tentacles.  These arms can unscrew jars, even childproof bottles, to get food out.  Not many marine animals use “tools” like an octopus can.  I guess it helps having so many arms.

What can we learn from an octopus?  Probably a lot. I watched a video,  Octopus Brains, that was part of a presentation at University of New Mexico’s annual conference on Integrating Nanotechnology with Cell Biology and Nueroscience.  Some researchers are trying to design self-maneuvering robots that are based on octopus’ neurophysiology and behavior.   It would be easier to model the robot’s CPU after an octopus brain rather than a human brain, because human brains are much more complex.   Although, recently, I discovered we may not be far off, when I read an article by Traci Pedersen on PyschCentral.com about Spaun, the world’s largest simulated brain.

Researchers are hoping that the world’s largest simulated brain — known as Spaun — will be used to test new drugs that lead to breakthrough treatments for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s disease.

There is some pretty amazing stuff going on in brain research. What about you?  Have you had any cephalopod encounters lately?

What are you doing for your brain health in terms of “new learning”?

By: Tina Davidson

Sources:

Monterey Bay Aquarium  http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/efc/octopus.aspx

Octopus Brains http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyGazPZmmM0

PsychCentral http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/02/16/scientists-create-a-virtual-brain-to-study-neurological-disorders/65956.html

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