MSU Researchers' Study of Octopus Brains Could Lead To Better Prosthetics

Aug 14, 2020

Researchers at Michigan State University are studying the brain body connection in animals like the octopus, and that research could be used to help develop better prosthetic technology.

Dr Galit Pelled is the director of the Neuroengineering Division at MSU’s Institute for Quantitative Health Sciences and Engineering and spoke with WKAR's Mary Ellen Pitney about her research.


The Ideal Candidates

So understanding the nervous system of many of these animals is just bound to provide information and new perspective about the brain, how our brain function, and also fuel the development of new and innovative technologies.

Animal species have long been used in lab setting to model biomedical research. The iconic animal that often comes to mind when we think of medical research is the laboratory mouse. Used all over the globe in research, there is even a monument to the laboratory mouse in Novosirbirsk, Russia. Its practical application in experimental studies have made it the posterchild for biomedical research, but there are actually thousands of species from all branches of the tree of life used in observational studies. Humans have been using animal models in virtually all fields of biomedical research including, but not limited to, basic biology, immunology and infectious disease, oncology, and behavior as early as 2,400 years ago.

In neurobiology alone, horseshoe crabs have been used to study vision, dogfish are used to study glaucoma, marine snails for behavior and electric eels for synaptic transmission. Dr. Galit Pelled studies octopi.

The Perfect Model

Grasping is the most desirable movement for patients who have lost a hand or maybe had a spinal cord injury. This is the most, it's the most desirable movement they would like to regain back.

The nervous system is divided into two parts, central and peripheral. And they both have different functions. The central nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord and eyes and does most of the messaging and processing of information, both internal and external. The Spinal cord is the information superhighway of the body, carrying every single message the body sends to the brain and every single message the brain sends back out, non-stop, at the same time, every second of every day. It is really a bundle of nerves with scaffolding that is covered in a protective sheath. It is unique to vertebrates and there is usually one per animal. The spinal cord is well protected and very delicate making it difficult to study.

The octopus, however, is special. Inside each of its eight limbs is a central axial nerve that functions much like the spinal cord—carrying multiple forms of information simultaneously back and forth. Pelled says that the octopus is an invertebrate that evolved long before any vertebrate, and despite this was essentially able to develop eight pseudo-spinal cords. She says the complexity of the cephalopod’s nervous system is what allows it to move so elegantly despite having no bones. The tentacles of an octopus can perform delicate tasks like picking locks, to tasks that require brute strength like punching holes straight through the plexiglass walls of their tanks (they are also notorious escape artists). Pelled points out its sensory uptake is so keen it can camouflage itself, matching the color and texture of its environment indistinguishably, despite the fact most researchers believe it is color-blind.

Miss Congeniality

And I was completely blown away when I saw that he had many things of octopuses in the rooms, and the octopus swim very happily towards one of the students who were standing next to me, but then seemed kind of apprehensive about other people. That really made a very big impression on me.

Dr. Pelled’s love for the octopus goes far beyond its physical qualities that make it an ideal subject. It also has a winning personality.  A conservationist might classify an octopus as charismatic megafauna, which is a special group of animals that audiences find appealing and connect with emotionally, much like pandas and elephants. Many researchers who have worked with octopus have stories to tell about their antics. A bored octopus in Germany once shorted out the lights in the entire building by squirting water at the overhead spotlight on his tank, a trick he was trained to do at visitors. You can even watch Rocky the Octopus paint a masterpiece at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium on YouTube.  

Researchers who devote themselves and their carriers to studying a specific animal often do get attached to those animals. One episode of This American Life from WBEZ told the story of the warring factions of researchers—like the bird people and the worm people—that is so pronounced that people who study invertebrates sometimes call it the Vertebrate Divide. The octopus, despite being spineless, has transcended this. 

Credit Credit copyright 2019 Thomas R. Gennara.

Curiosity with Purpose

Enjoyment of discovery and the whole process around it from the concept, all the way to doing the experiment, analyzing the data, the teamwork, the students, everything together. Being a scientist, I feel it's excitement every single day

Dr. Pelled says she is motivated to do this kind of research because it blends her curiosity and love of discovery with her desire to help people. She does this work because she enjoys it. Being able to apply this research to help people have a better quality of life, makes it that much more fulfilling.

Full interview transcript

Mary Ellen Pitney

It's Morning Edition from WKAR. I'm Mary Ellen Pitney. Right now most of the news you hear from the science world is about the coronavirus. But that does not mean that discoveries and innovations aren't being made every single day. Researchers at Michigan State University are studying the brain body connection in animals like the octopus, for example. And that research could be used to help develop better prosthetic technology. Dr. Galit Pelled is the director of the neuroengineering department at MSU Institute for Quantitative Health Sciences and Engineering. And she joins us now. Good morning, Galit.

Dr. Galit Pelled

Good morning.

Pitney

Okay, so this article that I read, it talked about your work with octopus and how you are using them to develop a better understanding of our brains and our bodies. Can you tell us about your research?

Pelled

So in my research, we ask if there's a way to capitalize on, on new technology, like non invasive brain stimulation. So we can achieve motor and cognitive functions faster, even perhaps get even to a level that can exceed traditional training approaches. In my lab, we are very interested in marine creatures. There are over 230,000 species recorded in the sea so far, thousands of these creatures including fish and mollusks and algae have very unique behavior, very unique features that are mainly unexplored. So understanding the nervous system of many of these animals is just bound to provide information and new perspective about the brain, how our brain function, and also fuel the development of new and innovative technologies.

Pitney

Wow. Okay. So I love that answer. And, you know, it leads me to my next question, which is one of the primary projected applications of this work, people see it as a way to improve prosthetics, and you're studying octopus as one of your models. Did you pick it for a practical reason? Like it has a lot of limbs and can be kept in a lab? Or is there something uniquely special about the brains of these creatures?

Pelled

My interest in octopus started many years ago when I was an undergrad student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. One summer I saw an ad that somebody is looking for help in taking care of their octopuses. And I thought that sounds cool.

I came into the lab. And I was completely blown away when I saw that he had many things of octopuses in the rooms, and the octopus swim very happily towards one of the students who were standing next to me, but then seemed kind of apprehensive about other people. That really made a very big impression on me.

So we are interested in neural performance. How to restore performance for people who have lost performance, let's say limb performance, grasping. So holding something, if we think about holding a cup and drinking this is a movement or holding a pen and writing, a movement that we do thousands, maybe millions of times every single day, we don't even think consciously about it, we do it quite automatically. Grasping is the most desirable movement for patients who have lost a hand or maybe had a spinal cord injury. This is the most, it's the most desirable movement they would like to regain back. So developing new type of robotic arms that will allow adaptable and flexible gripping in patients is really, is, there's a lot of effort in this area but it still remains a challenge.

In my lab, we are taking a very special approach to identify new ways that robotic arm can control movement, much like what the octopus does. So the octopus is an extraordinary creature in so many ways. It has three hearts. It has blue blood, and it can camouflage, although it is believed to be colorblind. So this is quite amazing. It also regenerates many parts of its body. So there's a lot of interest in octopus physiology above, beyond what we're doing currently in the lab. The octopus has no bones, and it can move potentially in an infinite number of ways. But yet it moves in a very graceful and coordinated way. So how does it do that? And very interestingly, that octopus existed even before dinosaurs.

The first fossils of octopus is dated to be from 296 million years ago. So in the course of evolution correlate to vertebrate the octopus, quite amazingly came up with many similar solutions. For physiology and sensing function for example, its eyes are very similar to human eyes. But in terms of motion of movement, octopus developed a completely alternative strategy.

Pitney

Oh my gosh, I'm just like blown away listening to you talk about these creatures. This is amazing. This is WKAR, we are speaking with Dr. Galit Pelled. So, this research is just one small aspect of your entire body of work. A body that I bet, like an octopus, has many limbs. What motivates you to do this kind of work?

Pelled

I would say that the combination of being very curious and the enjoyment of discovery and the whole process around it. From the concept, all the way to doing the experiment, analyzing the data, the teamwork, the students, everything together. Being a scientist, I feel it's excitement every single day, every day is different. Every day, there's something new. Lots and lots of hurdles on the way, which every little discovery just makes it better at the end. And also, of course, I would say we are really fueled and passionate about doing research that will benefit humans. That will benefit us today, in the future 10 years from now, hundred years from now, and so on.

Pitney

Dr. Galit Pelled, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Pelled

Thank you.