Giant sea slug offers better understanding of the human nervous system

Pictured is the Tritonia diomedea, a giant sea slug which is the subject of a StFX study.

ANTIGONISH: St. Francis Xavier University researchers are studying navigation behavior in a giant sea slug that could help scientists learn more about the human nervous system.

Second-year science student Patrick O’Brien spent much of this summer off British Columbia’s pacific coast, studying Tritonia diomedea, a giant sea slug with a simpler nervous system that makes it an ideal “science convenience” for learning about other types of animals.

“Complex neurosystems are just a series of simple neurosystems,” explains O’Brien. “So when we study a simple system, we’re able to see what it does. Then, we extrapolate that to understand what might happen in more complex systems, like the ones vertebrate animals have – including humans.”

This particular project focuses on navigation behavior, looking at where and how an animal chooses to go in its habitat. A lot of marine animals, including Tritonia diomedea, use flowing water to direct how they move. But while researchers know the animals do this, they don’t fully understand how. This research hopes to answer that question by studying the sensory organs and nervous system of Tritonia, which in turn may provide greater insight on similar behaviours in other types of animals.

Working on this project was an eye-opener for O’Brien, but one that’s enriched his time as a StFX student.
“It was a steep learning curve,” he says. “But I think it really benefited me by showing what research actually is, and by showing that you need to jump in to succeed. It’s also helped me think more about what’s being taught in the classroom. Instead of just trying to memorize everything, you actually try and understand everything.”