But is a simple worm really an appropriate model for studying the human brain?
Most of what we know about the human nervous system, we have learned from simpler animals. The most famous animal in neuroscience is the squid because it has these huge nerves that enabled people to understand the basis of the electrical transmission of information.
In fact, one of the biggest surprises in modern biology is that the genes are not that different between the different animals. Almost every gene we are interested in with humans is recognizable in a mouse. Most are recognizable in a worm or in a fly.
So what have you learned from your worm?
In 1993, we did an experiment showing that worms could smell. This wasn’t known before. Our next experiment, I think the most important my lab did, is that we made a worm neuron smell an odor it had never smelled before, and we made the animal completely change its opinion of that odor by doing that.
We had an animal that loves an odor that smells like a certain food it likes. Usually, the worm runs right toward the odor. We took the gene that is a sensor for the food from where it was normally supposed to be. We put it into a different neuron that senses things the worm finds
Then, we “asked” the worm what it thought of this smell it usually loves. It ran away from the smell, as if it were dangerous.This said that the odor-sensing nerve cells form an innate map where each one knows whether something is good or bad about the environment. There’s a completely unlearned internal set of preferences, a set of instincts about what’s good and bad. The goal is to develop and apply new ways of studying networks of neurons involved in thought, emotion, perception and action.
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