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Recently I am reading some works about Caenorhabditis Elegans. A C.elegans has 302 neurons and we already know the function and connection of every one of their neurons so that we can exactly reconstruct it by computer programs. Also, C.elegans have a couple of sensory inputs, and a kind of intelligence (they can learn something).

The question is: what can we learn from C.elegans, so that we can understand Human brains?

To specify, I want to know:

  1. What's the relationship between C.elegans and Human beings (or primates)? Is there any route in the terms of evolution?
  2. Does the neural system of C.elegans still exist in human brains, as either a working or an idle part?

I am a computer scientist working on artificial intelligence. My purpose is to clarify the mechanisms of the Human brain. I hope C.elegans could help but I don't know much about biology.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Caenorhabditis elegans is probably not an ancestor to Humans. As found in Sponge proteins are more similar to those of Homo sapiens than to Caenorhabditis elegans, certain sponges were found to have more similar protein structures to humans than C. elegans suggesting the sponges are the ancestor.

For your second point, it depends what you mean. The actual, exact sort of network in C. elegans doesn't exist as a "part" in Human brains nor would it even if humans had C elegans as a direct ancestor; the network would have evolved considerably.

The basic structure of the neural network as a connected net of neurons and the basic functionality has of course remained through all organisms with developed neural networks. Like all life, certain related developmental processes exist between humans and C. elegans, which is why studying them (and most any other animal) is often relevant to Human research of similar biological or psychological areas of interest.

C. elegans can even learn, showing it is a very complete model of a neural network, despite it's simplicity.

C. elegans is not studied because it is an ancestor or because it has any particular relation to the human mind, but because it has an extremely simple, completely functional neural network. There are complete maps of C elegans' neural network and even online tools to search the synapses of C elegans. There are whole websites dedicated to research on C. elegans.

Similar to fruit flies, C. elegans also provide a great vector for developmental research because they have a lifespan of a couple weeks instead of decades.

Some great further reading is the introductory Why use C. elegans to study the synapse ?

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Thank you! For the "part" thing, I mean that like the frogs' conarium still exist in human brains(even thought we don't use it any more), so that I wonder if there's any part of the nervous system of C.elegans still exist as part of human brains. Yes as you said, C.elegans are simple and completely mapped(that's why I studied them), but my goal is to understand the human brain. is there any approach from C.elegans in your opinion? –  Skyler Feb 3 '12 at 4:08
1  
@Skyler like I said, depends how you mean. Since it's so simple we've learned a great deal how to study neural networks in general from C. elegans, it's basically to NN research what the fruit fly is to genetics and the rat to psychology. In terms of research specifically applicable to humans I don't think there's all that much; C. elegans is a great way to learn about neural networks as a thing, but there's not much that can be extrapolated directly to humans that's not just as applicable to other species. –  Ben Brocka Feb 3 '12 at 14:56

There are some important relationships between the c. elegans nervous system and the human nervous system that should be pointed out here:

  • Neurons in both animals communicate with each other via synapses that use special molecules called neurotransmitters to convey activity. All major neurotransmitters used in humans are also used in c. elegans (Glutamate, GABA, Acetylcholine, Dopamine).
  • Because of the genetic similarity of c. elegans to humans, you can splice human genes into their genomes and have them produce human proteins, which interact with c. elegans proteins and provide an isolated way to study their activity.
  • The basic principles of excitable membranes formulated by Hodgkin and Huxley in 1952 are applicable to understanding and modeling the nervous systems of both creatures
  • Because of these facts, the creation of a system to simulate the nervous system of the c. elegans represents a lower bound of complexity of a system needed to simulate the human nervous system.
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