The BBC recently ran a fascinating story about medical researchers using the snail, of all things, to help further understand the way that brains age. As the BBC’s Helen Briggs noted, one of the intriguing things about loss of higher cognitive functions as human beings age is that it is often not so much caused by a decline in brain cells but rather, for some reason, existing brain cells lose the ability to perform their functions and instead begin acting in different ways.
The same thing happens to snails as they age. “When you look in the brain of an old snail you find the little group of brian cells that controls the snail’s feeding is defect,” researcher Richard Faragher told the British Association’s Festival of Science. “It is defective because the snail is old. Altered neuronal function with aging is what we colloquially call senility.”
The other reason for using snails is that the snail turns out to be the only animal at the moment for which researchers have completely mapped its various brain functions. This allows researchers to study and test hypotheses on the simpler snail brain which might yield insight into what happens in the brains of human beings.
”Because the snail is so much simpler,” Faragher said, “we hope to be able to understand it and then apply that understanding to more complex animals, such as rates and mice, or you and me. … Comparative biology is one of the strongest tools in the basic biochemist’s arsenal when he tries to understand any fundamental process.”
Given that, don’t expect to have to wait to long before the Animal Liberation Front extends its activities into liberating oppressed snails.
Snails battle senility. Helen Briggs, The BBC, September 11, 2000.