Squid brains approach that of dogs

Summary: The first MRI-based mapping of the squid brain yields 145 new connections and pathways, 60% of which are linked to the motor and visual systems. The new brain map brings researchers one step closer to understanding how the squid can instantly camouflage itself.

Source: University of Queensland

We are closer to understanding the incredible ability of squid to instantly camouflage themselves thanks to research from The University of Queensland.

Dr Wen-Sung Chung and Professor Justin Marshall, from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute, completed the first MRI-based mapping of the squid brain in 50 years to develop an atlas of neural connections.

“This the first time modern technology has been used to explore the brain of this amazing animal, and we proposed 145 new connections and pathways, more than 60 percent of which are linked to the vision and motor systems,” Dr Chung said.

“The modern cephalopods, a group including octopus, cuttlefish and squid, have famously complex brains, approaching that of a dog and surpassing mice and rats, at least in neuronal number.

“For example, some cephalopods have more than 500 million neurons, compared to 200 million for a rat and 20,000 for a normal mollusc.

Some examples of complex cephalopod behaviour include the ability to camouflage themselves despite being colourblind, count, recognise patterns, problem solve and communicate using a variety of signals.

This shows a squid
UQ researchers have used modern technology to map the connections of the brain of the reef squid Sepioteuthis lessoniana. Image is credited to Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland.

“We can see that a lot of neural circuits are dedicated to camouflage and visual communication. Giving the squid a unique ability to evade predators, hunt and conspecific communicate with dynamic colour changes”.

Dr Chung said the study also supported emerging hypotheses on convergent evolution – when organisms independently evolve similar traits – of cephalopod nervous systems with parts of the vertebrate central nervous system.

“The similarity with the better-studied vertebrate nervous system allows us to make new predictions about the cephalopod nervous system at the behavioural level,” he said.

“For example, this study proposes several new networks of neurons in charge of visually-guided behaviours such as locomotion and countershading camouflage – when squid display different colours on the top and bottom of their bodies to blend into the background whether they are being viewed from above or below.”

The team’s ongoing project involves understanding why different cephalopod species have evolved different subdivisions of the brain.

“Our findings will hopefully provide evidence to help us understand why these fascinating creatures display such diverse behaviour and very different interactions.”

About this neuroscience research article

University of Queensland
Media Contacts:
Jane Ilsley – University of Queensland
Image Source:
The image is credited to Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland.

Original Research: Open access
“Toward an MRI-Based Mesoscale Connectome of the Squid Brain”. Wen-Sung Chung, Nyoman D. Kurniawan, N. Justin Marshall.
iScience doi:10.1016/j.isci.2019.100816.


Toward an MRI-Based Mesoscale Connectome of the Squid Brain

• The first MRI-based connectome in a cephalopod
• Retinotopic organization through the optic lobes and into other brain areas
• Subdivided basal lobe system defines topographic information from optic lobes
• A new chiasm is proposed to coordinate vision and countershading camouflage

Using high-resolution diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI) and a suite of old and new staining techniques, the beginnings of a multi-scale connectome map of the squid brain is erected. The first of its kind for a cephalopod, this includes the confirmation of 281 known connections with the addition of 145 previously undescribed pathways. These and other features suggest a suite of functional attributes, including (1) retinotopic organization through the optic lobes and into other brain areas well beyond that previously recognized, (2) a level of complexity and sub-division in the basal lobe supporting ideas of convergence with the vertebrate basal ganglia, and (3) differential lobe-dependent growth rates that mirror complexity and transitions in ontogeny.

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