To determine if the ectopic eyes conveyed visual information, the team developed a computer-controlled visual training system in which quadrants of water were illuminated by either red or blue LED lights. The system could administer a mild electric shock to tadpoles swimming in a particular quadrant. A motion tracking system outfitted with a camera and a computer program allowed the scientists to monitor and record the tadpoles' motion and speed.
Eyes See Without Wiring to Brain
The team made exciting discoveries: Just over 19 percent of the animals with optic nerves that connected to the spine demonstrated learned responses to the lights. They swam away from the red light while the blue light stimulated natural movement.
Their response to the lights elicited during the experiments was no different from that of a control group of tadpoles with natural eyes intact. Furthermore, this response was not demonstrated by eyeless tadpoles or tadpoles that did not receive any electrical shock.
"This has never been shown before," says Levin. "No one would have guessed that eyes on the flank of a tadpole could see, especially when wired only to the spinal cord and not the brain."
The findings suggest a remarkable plasticity in the brain's ability to incorporate signals from various body regions into behavioral programs that had evolved with a specific and different body plan.
"Ectopic eyes performed visual function," says Blackiston. "The brain recognized visual data from eyes that impinged on the spinal cord. We still need to determine if this plasticity in vertebrate brains extends to different ectopic organs or organs appropriate in different species."
One of the most fascinating areas for future investigation, according to Blackiston and Levin, is the question of exactly how the brain recognizes
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