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What Scientists Learned by Putting Octopuses in MRI Machines


Whether they’re predicting the outcomes of sports games or opening jars, the intelligence of octopuses and their cephalopod kin has fascinated avid sports fans and scientists alike (not that the two groups are mutually exclusive). However, insights into the animals’ brains have been limited, as structural data has come from low-tech methods such as dissection.

Wen-Sung Chung, a University of Queensland Brain Institute neurobiologist who focuses on marine species, explains that octopuses have “probably the biggest centralized brain in invertebrates,” with multiple layers and lobes. Some species have more than 500 million neurons, he adds—compared to around 70 million in lab mice—making cephalopods especially intriguing as models for neuroscience.

Chung and his colleagues decided to bring cephalopod neuroscience into the 21st century: using cutting-edge MRI, they probed the brains of four cephalopod species. They were especially interested in exploring whether cephalopod brain structures reflect the environments they live in. Indeed, the team reports numerous structural differences between species that live on reefs and those that dwell in deeper waters in a November 18 Current Biology paper.

Giovanna Ponte, an evolutionary marine biologist