Building a model of a complex brain unconstrained by shared evolutionary history

Cephalopods, marine animals that include octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, have the largest and most complicated nervous systems of the invertebrate world. Octopuses, for example, have around 500 million neurons, a similar number to those of medium-sized mammals like the ferret. Unlike mammals, whose neurons are concentrated largely in their brain, cephalopods distribute their neurons throughout their bodies — octopuses have more than half their neurons in their arms. Robyn Crook is leading a project to map the neural connections in the octopus arm with a focus on the neurons that control movement, and to capture brain activity in real time as the animals move in natural ways. Crook and her colleagues will also surgically manipulate octopus arms and their suckers to test the animals’ innate and learned ability to compensate for injuries with their healthy arms. The project will also include an educational, citizen-science component by inviting San Francisco State University undergraduate students to help capture shapes of cephalopod neurons in microscopy images.  

Affiliated Investigators

Robyn Crook, Ph.D.

San Francisco State University

Dr. Robyn Crook is an Associate Professor of Biology at San Francisco State University, a Primarily Undergraduate and Hispanic Serving Institution in San Francisco, CA. She received her undergraduate degree in Zoology from the University of Melbourne, Australia, then obtained a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior from the City University of New York, studying the evolution of learning and memory with Jennifer Basil. Her postdoctoral work with Terry Walters at the University of Texas Medical School, Houston, focused on neural mechanisms of chronic pain and spinal cord plasticity after injury. During her postdoctoral fellowship she also worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory with Roger Hanlon, producing the first studies of nociceptive plasticity in cephalopods. 

Research in her laboratory at SFSU is guided by the overarching question of how shared selection pressures drive the evolution of similar patterns of neural plasticity in phylogenetically distant species. Using cephalopod molluscs – an invertebrate lineage that independently evolved brain and behavioral complexity comparable to those of mammals – her lab’s research focuses on conserved mechanisms of adaptive, injury-induced sensitization, with a particular emphasis on the brain in its natural ecological context. Her work has produced novel findings on the adaptive value of chronic pain, the role of painful early-life experience in modulating ecologically-relevant adult behaviors, and the evolution of affective state, sentience and subjective experience in invertebrates. Her work on comparative neurobiology of pain has also made her a world leader in the field of invertebrate animal welfare, which continues to have wide-ranging impacts on legislative efforts to regulate the use of invertebrates in research. She currently holds an NSF CAREER award, and has previously been funded by the NSF, the NIH and private foundations.