Neuroscientists look deep into the eyes of the octopus

It’s hard for the octopus to pick just one party trick. It swims via jet propulsion, shoots inky chemicals at its foes, and can change its skin within seconds to blend in with its surroundings.

A team of University of Oregon researchers is investigating yet another distinctive feature of this eight-armed marine animal: its outstanding visual capabilities.

In a new paper, they lay out a detailed map of the octopus’ visual system, classifying different types of neurons in a part of the brain devoted to vision. The map is a resource for other neuroscientists, giving details that could guide future experiments. And it could teach us something about the evolution of brains and visual systems more broadly, too.

The team reports their findings Oct. 31 in Current Biology.

Associate professor Cris Niell’s lab in the Institute of Neuroscience studies vision, mostly in mice. But a few years ago, postdoctoral researcher Judit Pungor brought a new species to the lab: the California two-spot octopus.

While not traditionally used as a study subject in the lab, the cephalopod quickly captured the interest of UO neuroscientists. Unlike mice, which are not known for having good vision, “octopuses have an amazing visual system, and a large fraction of their brain is dedicated to visual processing,” Niell said. “They have an eye that’s remarkably similar to the human eye, but after that, the brain is completely different.

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