Based on research conducted at Tufts University for The Journal of Experimental Biology, the unassuming planarian worm has some remarkable abilities that may unlock secrets to the future of medicine. The planarian has always been known for remarkable regenerative ability, but this new research shows that it can regenerate not just physical body parts, but knowledge.
The research tested the burrowing worm’s ability to conquer unfamiliar environments filled with bright light and open spaces in order to reach food. The worms were trained through many repeated trials to ignore the foreign stimuli and get to their destination to be rewarded. This sort of training is totally different than any sort of experience the planarian worm would have in the wild, and contrary to the instincts they develop in their native environments.
Then worms who had undergone this training had their head and neck removed. Planarians are able to regrow a whole new head and brain in about two weeks, and after they had healed completely, the researches tested the regenerated worms with a batch of untested worms. Without fail, the ones who had previously experienced the challenge were able to conquer it more quickly. Although they were not able to remember the challenges instantly, it only took one lesson for their memory to be sparked while the new worms took several lessons to learn the ropes.
At this time it is unknown how this is possible. Like humans, the planarians’ cognition and behavior are controlled entirely by their brain. Researchers are still trying to determine how the brain could be removed but trace memory could remain. Current theories are that either memory is sequestered elsewhere in the worm’s body or the worm has the ability to retrain its nervous system based on the brain’s stimulus. Either way, researchers are hopeful that the study of this remarkable creature could inform future discovery in how human beings learn and store information.