For the first time, researchers have demonstrated that brainless single-celled organisms have a capacity to learn and adapt to changes.
Human ability to learn from experience and adapt to new situations is always associated with the brain, but new research suggests that you don’t need a brain to learn something new. Learning is possible even without a nervous system and a brain.
Researchers have found that slime mold or Physarum polycephalum, which is a single-celled organism, is capable of a type of a learning called habituation, where you learn to adjust to unpleasent environments.
Slime molds live in shady, moist areas and it has been already proven that they are quite smart. They can solve a maze, avoid traps and even anticipate changes such as when the light will turn on if it is switched off and on at regular interval. But very little was known about its ability to learn – until now.
For the first time, researchers have demonstrated how this single-celled organism can get used to the exposure of harmful chemicals despite having no brain or central nervous system.
Researchers tested slime mold’s behavior in a lab and the focus on a very basic form of learning called habituation. During a nine-day experiment, slime molds were needed to cross bridges in order to reach the food. But it was not as simple as it sounds. Some of the bridges were made of plain ager gel while others were covered with either quinine or caffeine, bitter substances that can prove harmful when used in large amounts.
The group of slime molds, which had to pass through the non-impregnated bridge, did it with ease. The other groups of slimes were initially hesitant to travel through the impregnated with bitter substances but once they realized they were harmless; they crossed them with increasingly rapidly in the same way as the other group which had not dealt with substances.
The organism thus learned not to fear a harmless substance when it confronted with it on several occasions and scientists refer this phenomenon as habituation. This is similar to when humans lose their fear of needles after being repeatedly exposed to them in phobia therapy.
Researchers also found that when slime molds were given a couple of days of rest, potentially to "forget" what they learn and again placed them on bridges, they again showed the behavior of distrust and reluctance.
“We usually think of learning as a trait that is limited to organisms with brains and nervous systems. Indeed, learning is often equated with neuronal changes such as synaptic plasticity, implicitly precluding its existence in non-neural organisms.” Authors wrote in the study.
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“Our results point to the diversity of organism lacking neurons, which will likely display a hitherto unrecognized capacity for learning, and suggest that slime moulds may be an ideal model system in which to investigate fundamental mechanisms underlying learning processes.”