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The worm that turned
29 January 2007
Canadian scientists have taught nematode worms to solve mazes.
Jianhua Qin and Aaron Wheeler from the University of Toronto looked at the way nematode worms behave in simple microfluidic mazes. They found that the worms explore the mazes and tend to choose branches which lead to food. When the food is taken away, the worms remember where it was and continue to take the same path through the maze.
Nematode worms are commonly studied by behavioural scientists because, despite their very simple nervous systems, they display quite complicated behaviour. There is little evidence that they can sense spatial information, so they have not been studied in mazes before. Qin and Wheeler's work breaks new ground by introducing microfluidic tools to behavioural analysis.
'This technology has tremendous potential for use in behavioral analysis of a wide range of species. The technical expertise required to build the mazes and carry out the experiments is quite modest,' said Wheeler, who hopes the method will become more widely-used by the behavioral science community.
Wheeler's ultimate aim is to combine behavioral assays with chemical analysis, so that scientists can monitor neurotransmitter levels during behavioral tests in order to better understand the neurochemistry involved.
'The mystery is that we do not know what cues the worms used to decide what direction to turn,' said Catharine Rankin, professor of psychology at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, Canada. The researchers have controlled for chemical cues and the worms have no eyes so they cannot use visual cues. 'So what are they learning about?'
Rankin added that 'the fun of nematode worms is the challenge they offer a creature with billions of neurons (us) to come up with clever experiments like this to see what worms can do with only 302 neurons!'
Maze exploration and learning in C. elegans
J Qin and AR Wheeler, Lab Chip, 2007