The eight-armed secret to improved cognition and memory

For the past few months, we’ve been hearing all about the discoveries the Jupiter space probe is making. But how often do we hear about the mysteries in the oceans below us?

Scientists have now mapped out more about what is on the surface of the moon and planets than what lies in the deepest depths of our oceans. And yet, the oceans’ “inner space” likely hold just as many — or maybe even more — secrets as outer space.

In fact, there is life in the ocean deep that may unlock some of the mysteries of human health. For instance, new research shows that a type of ancient octopus may hold a key to keeping our brains and nervous systems younger and more agile.1 And that means increased memory and learning capacity.

Recently, scientists did the first full genome sequencing on an octopus that is part of a class of mollusks that also includes squids and cuttlefish. These mollusks have a biological history that goes back over 500 million years — long before either plant or animal life moved from the oceans onto the land.

These ancient creatures now inhabit nearly every ocean at almost any depth. They have a remarkable array of features — camera-like eyes, extremely flexible and pliable bodies, and sophisticated camouflage responses that outshine chameleons.

The octopuses also possess highly developed brains and nervous systems, with significant intelligence and elaborate problem-solving skills.

In fact, genome sequencing revealed that these octopuses are entirely different from any other animal on the planet.  And their genome has a staggering level of complexity — 33,000 protein-coding genes, more than in a human being.

“The late British zoologist Martin Wells said the octopus is an alien. In this sense, then, our paper describes the first sequenced genome from an alien,” joked researcher Dr. Clifton Ragsdale from the University of Chicago.2

Dr. Ragsdale and his colleagues found that the octopus genome contains transposons, which are commonly called “jumping genes.”  These genes can rearrange themselves, and they’re particularly prevalent in brain and neural tissues. One result is that octopuses have great memories and learning capacity.

So what does this mean for us? Well, further research on these ancient “alien” octopuses may reveal more genetic secrets about how to keep our brains and nervous systems agile — and our memory and learning capacity robust.

In the meantime, we have uncovered many other secrets in Nature that can help keep our brains and nervous systems young and working at full capacity. And they’re not buried in the deep.

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[1] “The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties.” Nature 524, 220–224 (13 August 2015).