Octopuses & MS: linking multiple arms to multiple sclerosis

Written by Zuzanna Dusza

In a recent study, published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, an Iranian neurologist has suggested that octopuses may provide some insight into curing Multiple sclerosis (MS). This might sound like the plot of a rather mediocre sci-fi movie, but the new paper lays out some compelling arguments as to how octopus lab models could potentially be used to find a treatment.

Could these weird & wonderful animals really hold the key to curing MS?

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic illness which involves the immune system attacking the protective layer of its own nerve cells. This causes the brain to have trouble sending signals through the body’s nervous system. The illness causes a range of symptoms including double vision, blindness, muscle weakness and loss of sensation and co-ordination. As a result the biggest issue, as stated by 70% of MS patients, is the gradual inability to walk. An estimated 2.5 million people suffer from the disease globally, but so far no cure for MS has been discovered.

The new study illustrates how using octopuses as laboratory models can help us learn more about the disease and potentially help develop a cure. It was put forward by Dr Abdorreza Naser Moghadasi, a neurologist at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences. The premise of his argument is that the cephalopods ‘alien’ nervous system makes it immune to an MS-like disease and provides a framework we might be able to follow.

So, what is it about the octopus nervous system specifically that makes it the ideal candidate for this kind of research? Unlike our single brain which is in control of receiving and sending signals to delegate tasks to other parts of the body, octopuses have a more spread out nervous system. It is often stated that octopuses have ‘nine brains rather than one’, of which eight are located in their arms. In order to fully understand this we can think of the human nervous system as a monarchy in which a country (the body) is ruled by a king or queen (the brain,) whereas the octopus’s nervous system is as a self-governing nation, in which all members are in control.

reaching out
An octopuses arms literally have a mind of their own, to a certain extent

The idea of making our human monarchy more like a self-governing state is “at first glance, an intention that is out of reach” says Dr Moghadasi, but he goes on to suggest that there are solutions to help achieve this and that octopuses are “the key to solving this problem”. The main issue is transferring the octopus-like nervous system to humans. It is theoretically possible to insert ganglions (clumps of nerve cells) into a patients limbs to give them a degree of autonomy. However this doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work and even if it did there is no real way of telling how it might effect that individual.

Despite over 500 million years of evolutional divergence between us and cephalopods, many researchers now agree octopuses are probably our closest intellectual rival in the animal kingdom. However their nervous system is far removed from our own and it is almost impossible to predict how they might experience the world around them. Each arm is capable of performing its own functions whilst also having some form of top-down control from the brain. Even if this was possible in humans what would that feel like and is it even possible to walk if your legs have a ‘mind of their own’.

Perhaps another way octopuses might be able to help us treat MS is through preventing nerve damage in the first place. Finding a way to repair the protective coating of nerve fibres could mean preventing the disease from worsening and improving symptoms. Octopuses are able to fully replace damaged organs, tissues and completely cut nerves, so exploring how they achieve this could also help provide the answer to curing human MS.

When you look into an octopus’s eyes it is immediately clear there is something intelligent looking back at you

However regardless of how octopus physiology could yield insights into MS research, any potential solutions remain a long way off. It could very well be that these cephalopods will be the ones that help us eradicate this devastating disease, but it won’t be any time soon. Despite some promising evidence it is also important to consider if such a far-fetched idea is really worth sacrificing the lives of these intelligent animals for?

Zuzanna Dusza is a marine biology student at the University of Exeter. She is passionate about the natural environment, especially the marine habitat and all organisms that inhabit it. She’s planning to pursue a career in science communication and writes articles for a Cornwall-based environmental magazine “Bloom in Doom”. For media enquiries you can contact her via her LinkedIn profile here.

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