Tiny worms change direction using two human-like neural circuits

A University of Michigan biologist and his colleagues have found that the strategies used by the tiny C. elegans roundworm to control its motions are remarkably similar to those used by the human brain to command movement of eyes, arms and legs.

 
Green and yellow fluorescence mark the processes and cell bodies of some C. elegans neurons. Image courtesy of the Xu lab

C. elegans, a nematode about 1 millimeter in length, is one of the most widely used animals in biological research. In the Nov. 11 edition of the journal Cell, U-M's Shawn Xu and his colleagues show that the roundworm uses two neural circuits that respectively act as a gas pedal and a brake release to change direction. The gas pedal circuit has been known for years and was thought to be the only neural pathway involved.

Using a multidisciplinary approach, Xu's team has found that a second, previously unknown neural pathway is also involved. It acts like releasing the brake pedal on your car to allow motion. The human brain uses both the gas pedal and brake release circuits to command the movement of eyes, arms and legs.

"Our results show that distantly related organisms with anatomically distinct nervous systems may adopt similar strategies for motor control," Xu said. "This new information about the nematode's brain can be used to provide insights into how the human brain---and the brains of many other organisms---works," said Xu, a research associate professor at the U-M Life Sciences Institute and an associate professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the Medical School.

Specifically, the new C. elegans findings are expected to help scientists better understand human neurodegenerative diseases---such as Parkinson's and Huntington's---that involve movement disorders, Xu said.

The C. elegans nervous system contains 302 nerve cells called neurons, while the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. C. elegans is the only organism whose entire nervous system---all the neurons and the connections between them---has been mapped.