Some memories just won't die — and some can even be transferred to a whole new brain. Researchers at Tufts University have determined that a small, yellow worm known as a planarian, which has long been studied for its regenerative properties, is able to grow back a lot more than just its body parts: after the worm's small, snake-like head and neck are removed, its body will even regrow a brain that's capable of quickly relearning its lost skills.
A little training makes it all come back
The researchers tested the memory of planarians by measuring how long it took for them to reach food in a controlled setting. The small worms dislike open spaces and bright lights — but they had been trained to ignore it so that they could find their meals. Even after decapitation, worms that had gone through training were able to overcome their fears and start eating much faster than worms that hadn't been trained. However, the memories didn't come back immediately. Each worm still had to be reminded of its earlier knowledge, though it only took a single lesson for it to all come back.
Why this happens is still unclear. Planarians' brains control their behavior, but the researchers suggest that some of their memories might be stored elsewhere in their body. Alternatively, they suggest that the worms' original brain may have modified their nervous systems, and their nervous systems may have then altered how the new brains formed during regrowth.
The researchers' findings appears in The Journal of Experimental Biology. They say that more work needs to be done to nail down the specifics of how planarians recover their memory, but the hope is that the worms can be used as a way to study how memory and learning work. That may sound complicated for a seemingly basic creature, but existing studies are already using them to research drug addiction and withdrawal.