Written by by Ivana Konopka, CNN Written by Ivana Konopka, CNN
At 33 inches long, you wouldn’t consider the “IntelligentBeetle” fish brain the biggest on Earth. Yet their brain is surprisingly sophisticated, coming as close to humans as a meteorite’s size.
An international team of scientists recently succeeded in mapping the complex neural network of the beast’s brain , which fills the size of a basketball. The research, published last week in ‘Nature,’ has opened a new window onto a surprisingly complex and fascinating creature — and is already reshaping our understanding of how mammals, and perhaps humans, think.
“The individual brain of an intelligencebeetle is very small, it’s 4 millimeters, which is smaller than the brain of a mouse,” says Dr. Mike Doig, a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon at Aberdeen University. “On one hand, we’re looking at a very simple product of the neural network of intelligencebeetle, but on the other hand, we see all these things that were really quite unpredictable.”
The animals can be seen as both inspired and mysterious. In August, Doig analyzed five species of intelligencebeetle in a series of films recorded by an underwater camera perched above the water. That film, composed of 79 sections, contained 500 frames each, roughly one for every 10 millimeters of brain.
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By comparing large clusters of images, Doig and his colleagues discovered an intricate and highly-evolved network of neural cells that gave individual fish higher cognitive abilities. That network, Doig says, extends beyond the eyes and ears, and into the reproductive organs, influencing the animals’ reproductive cycles. And unlike many other animals, intelligencebeetles can also think independently, for the most part.
How it happened
“People have hypothesized about intelligencebeetles for quite a long time now,” Doig says. However, this was the first time the brain was explored fully — and was described for the first time in any written form.
The whole enterprise, Doig says, started with an answer to a trivia question. Last year, his team published the results of an experiment in the journal PLOS ONE that compared a sample of brain cells taken from the brains of bees, butterflies and butterflies, with intelligencebeetles. The differences were striking, he says.
“What we were able to do was show that rather than a rudimentary display of information, intelligencebeetles were involved in thought.”
Beyond bees and butterflies, Doig says intelligencebeetles look more like insects. That’s partly because they don’t have eyes, but also because their neural network architecture gives them higher cognitive abilities. However, do they really look like any other animals? Do they have facial or limb structure similar to, say, bees?
“A question was posed in the paper about, is it real intelligencebeetles? Or is it something like a ‘Star Trek Borg communicator,’ where it uses a neural network to cover all these little things,” he says.
It turns out, the Borg is at least in part a species. In order to map intelligencebeetles, Doig and his team did similar work on the Borg, who are aliens of the fictional artificial intelligence.
“We extracted one piece of their brain — they have a three-dimensional cortical structure — and put it into the paper alongside ours, because what’s interesting is to say, here’s some insights about building information processing. Here’s how we might think about the sorts of innovations we might get that would challenge us.”
And so the buzzworthy science experiment became the most recent in a series of real science experiments.
‘This research has many exciting prospects for science’
‘IntelligentBeetle’ is just one of the projects Doig has been working on in the past few years. Last year, the team published its findings on the snail tooth clapper, a crab-like creature with a ginormous brain. And in 2015, Doig and his colleagues published the results of a five-part experiment to map the neural networks of snake brains.
The work is booming, and more projects are in the works. Doig even has his sights set on human brains, and is helping to spearhead an ambitious project to map the human brain.
“It’s really exciting, because we’re just showing the start of a long process, I hope.”