The mechanisms of learning and memory are central topics in contemporary neurobiology. Although mammalian models are widely used to elucidate the function of big neuronal networks, alternative systems are needed to decipher the contribution of individual neurons, neuronal circuits dynamics, and aging-related deterioration. C. elegans nematode is one of the most informative model organisms in neurobiology and in the biology of aging. Despite its only 302 neurons, C. elegans demonstrates remarkable associative and non-associative learning, studied mainly in the context of chemical cues. Surprisingly, spatial learning had not been explored until recently, mainly due to the lack of appropriate experimental platforms. We pioneered that area, as we designed a nematode-friendly maze arena, and developed a behavioral assay that allows for the assessment of spatial learning in nematodes, for the first time. We showed that C. elegans young adults locate food in T-shaped mazes and based on this experience, learn to reach a specific side maze arm in a similar but empty maze. Learning is sufficient to reverse nematodes’ inherent preferences, depends on mechanosensation and proprioception, and declines with aging. We found that dietary and behavioral interventions can delay aging-driven decline of maze learning in middle-aged nematodes. In parallel, we are developing a mathematical framework that captures the dynamics of the steering circuitry, predicts the role of key neuronal components, and generates new testable hypotheses. To create more realistic terrains, we have developed a prototype 3D printer, that uses nematode-friendly hydrogel as ink, and prints 3D behavioral arenas. We aspire to unlock the underexploited potential of C. elegans, to characterize their 3D learning and locomotive behaviors, and to suggest translatable interventions that protect against aging-related decline of cognitive-like functions.
The GGA Seminar Series is held on Zoom: https://ncsu.zoom.us/j/99571426936?pwd=L2tqQjRUOWMzK1BkSFZSQXprYnRVQT09