Octopus can control one arm at a time

New Worlds: BGU researcher to promote global health after receiving grant from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

octopus 311 (photo credit: Hebrew University)
octopus 311
(photo credit: Hebrew University)
The octopus – which has a hard beak and venom, two eyes, three hearts and four pairs of arms but no skeleton and comes in around 300 known species – has been recognized for some years as being highly intelligent, fast learners due to large brains, even though its looks don’t make it seem very clever.
The cephalopod mollusc that inhabits diverse ocean regions are, in fact, believed to be more intelligent and behaviorally flexible than any other invertebrates, and experiments involving mazes and problem solving have shown that the creatures are able to store both short- and long-term memory. And as they have very little contact with their parents, octopuses learn almost nothing from the older generation. Thus it is no surprise that the late “Paul the Octopus” living in a water tank in Germany entranced the world when he was able to pick all the winners in 2010’s World Cup soccer matches in Johannesburg.
Now researchers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem show that octopuses are not only smart, but are flexible as ballet dangers. The research was reported on in a recent edition of Current Biology by Tamar Gutnick, Prof.
Binyamin Hochner and Dr. Michael Kuba of HU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, along with Dr. Ruth Byrne of the Medical University of Vienna.
The octopus’s eight arms covered with pods for attaching to surfaces help it swim, crawl, hunt and mate. As the sea creatures lack a rigid skeleton that determines limb position, they are extremely flexible. But because they have no such rigid structure, it was believed that they have only limited control over their limbs. In their research, the scientists developed a three-choice, transparent, plexiglass maze that forced the octopus to use a single arm and direct it to a visually marked compartment outside its tank that contained a reward of food.
The participating octopuses learned to insert a single arm through a central tube, out of the water and into the correct marked goal compartment to retrieve the food reward. This success was dependent on visual information, which the octopuses were able to translate into a series of coordinated movements by a single arm and retrieve the food.
The completion of this task shows for the first time that an octopus can direct a single arm in a complex movement to a target location. Motor control issues such as this are the basis of an ongoing European Union research project aimed at building a “robot octopus.” The researchers suggested that their findings on how the creature controls its movements are an important basis for the design of the control architecture of a robot lacking a rigid skeleton.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researcher Dr. Alberto Bilenca has been awarded a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of 88 grants awarded to explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve global health. The grants of $100,000 each have been made to researchers from 25 countries. This marks the sixth round of funding from Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE), an initiative to help lower the barriers for testing innovative ideas in global health. Projects selected for funding focused on polio eradication and vaccines, cell-phone applications for global health, new approaches to cure HIV, sanitation technologies, and new ideas to improve the health of mothers and newborns.
A member of the biomedical engineering department, Bilenca uses the principles of optical polarization/speckle and cell phone technology to create a low-cost, portable probe to quickly and accurately diagnose malaria in field settings. Winners were selected from more than 2,500 proposals and approximately 100 countries.
“GCE winners are expanding the pipeline of ideas to address serious global health and development challenges, where creative thinking is most urgently needed. This effort is critical if we are to spur on new discoveries that could save millions more lives,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Malaria causes one million deaths annually in developing countries (about 85 percent of which are children under five). “To date, there are no means of diagnosing malaria and monitoring disease severity noninvasively by a low-cost, compact and easy-to-use device in field settings,” said Bilenca. To address this challenge, he and Dr. Linnie Golightly of Weill Cornell Medical College, will be developing a noninvasive diagnostic probe that creates images depicting the malaria pigment (hemozoin crystals) in blood following malaria parasite infection, as well as micro-obstructions in the circulatory system that result from the infection.
“Our diagnostic probe is portable, simple to use and inexpensive to produce,” noted Bilenca. The prototype is based on a standard camera cellphone and a red laser pointer, and has already obtained noninvasively finger blood perfusion images in vivo with excellent resolution and contrast in less than a second. In contrast to commercially available malaria tests, this probe will avoid the need for blood collection, therefore maximizing medical safety, patient comfort and test rapidity.
“This probe helps meet the need for diagnostic technologies capable of noninvasive, reliable and rapid diagnosis of malaria in resource-limited areas,” he said. “If successful, this technology will provide a simple and robust test of malaria in field settings that will also be of tremendous value in monitoring these patients in intensive-care settings.”