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How to Read a Jellyfish’s Mind

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed “a kind of genetic toolbox” for tiny one-centimeter jellfyfish, reports Phys.org. Specifically, the jellyfish “have been genetically modified so that their neurons individually glow with fluorescent light when activated.”

Because a jellyfish is transparent, researchers can then watch the glow of the animal’s neural activity as it behaves naturally. In other words, the team can read a jellyfish’s mind as it feeds, swims, evades predators, and more, in order to understand how the animal’s relatively simple brain coordinates its behaviors. A paper describing the new study appears in the journal Cell on November 24….

Rather than being centralized in one part of the body like our own brains, the jellyfish brain is diffused across the animal’s entire body like a net. The various body parts of a jellyfish can operate seemingly autonomously, without centralized control; for example, a jellyfish mouth removed surgically can carry on “eating” even without the rest of the animal’s body.

This decentralized body plan seems to be a highly successful evolutionary strategy, as jellyfish have persisted throughout the animal kingdom for hundreds of millions of years. But how does the decentralized jellyfish nervous system coordinate and orchestrate behaviors…? [T]hough the network of jellyfish neurons originally seemed diffuse and unstructured, the researchers found a surprising degree of organization that only became visible with their fluorescent system.
Ultimately the researchers say they’ve identified “patches” of neurons that work together, and they now want to study how various “modules” of neuron groups are coordinating.

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