(CN) — For much of his career, visual neuroscientist Cris Niell has studied mice — a typical animal to study in a lab, small and docile. But a few years ago, a postdoctorate brought in a California two-spot octopus — a little thing, about size of a golf ball. Right away, Niell was fascinated.
"It’s like if someone handed you an alien brain and said, 'go figure out how this works,'" says Niell. "Their brain is almost like a giant slug brain, as opposed to anything that resembles ours."
The last common ancestor between octopuses and humans was 500 million years ago — "probably a small worm," Niell says. The two species have been on different evolutionary paths for half a billion years.
And yet, curiously, cephalopod eyes are similar to that of human eyes — both have pupils and lenses — because of a gene they both share, PAX6, that plays a critical role in developing eyes. Our brains, on the other hand, developed to be completely different.
In a new paper published Monday in Current Biology, Niell and his team describe how they mapped out the part of the octopus's brain that processes vision, which occupies a large part of the whole brain.
The researchers at the University of Oregon, where Niell teaches, picked out "six major classes of neurons, distinguished based on the chemical signals they send," according to a press release about the paper. "Looking at the activity of certain genes in those neurons then revealed further subtypes, providing clues to more specific roles."
"There was much more complexity than we expected to find," Niell says. "What looks like a pretty uniform structure actually has a lot more organization."
"The octopus visual system could be a model for understanding brain complexity more generally,” says Mea Songco-Casey, a graduate student who worked on Niell's team, in a written statement. “For example, are there fundamental cell types that are required for this very intelligent, complex brain?”
Now that he and his team have created a working map of the octopus brain, Niell hopes that the next step will be figuring out how it works. He also hopes that, in the long run, the research might lead to different artificial intelligence models.
"AI and artificial vision systems are based on our visual system," he says. "There may be other ways to design artificial vision systems based on how the octopus vision system."
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