Do you ever read about a study that’s received a million dollar grant and think, “Who would spend a million dollars to study THAT? And what kind of scientists would want to spend their time on it?”
That’s what I first thought when I heard about research on sea snail brains. I couldn’t figure out how the world really benefited from more detailed knowledge of a sea snail brain (specifically, the Aplysia californica sea snail, which looks more like a slug because it’s shell isn’t visible, as you can see in the photo on the left.) I thought there were more important things to study.
I was wrong. As it turns out, Aplysia studies have contributed tremendously to knowledge about how all brains work—inclulding our own. There are a couple of very compelling reasons to study the Aplysia brain: for starters, they have some of the biggest brain cells around. While the neurons in a human brain are incredibly tiny, Aplysia neurons are as big as 1 mm—visible to the naked eye. (That’s huge in the world of neurons!) And Aplysia only have 20,000 brain cells or so, while humans have 100 billion to keep track of.
Neuroscientist Eric Kandel and others have used Aplysia brains for groundbreaking work on neural communication—including work on how the brain learns and forms memories, for which he and his colleagues won the Nobel Prize in 2000. You can read more about why the Aplysia brain is a great study subject and what scientists have learned from it over the last 50 years from the Rosenstiel School National Resource for Aplysia at the University of Miami (where you can also order Aplysia, if you are so inclined). Eric Kandel also wrote a well-known book about his research, titled In Search of Memory, where Aplysia are major players.
So I have been chastened by the lowly but marvelous sea snail. I no longer judge the value of studies based on superficial knowledge. (Or at least not as often.)