Dr Yee Lian Chew doesn’t mind standing out in a crowd, nor does she object to being known as the “worm lady”.
“When I say I work on worm brains, it’s a good conversation starter.”
Dr Chew is a Senior Research Fellow in Neuroscience at Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health, and the worm in question is the roundworm C. elegans.
It is a far cry from your common or garden earthworm, however, being just a millimetre in length and transparent, each animal carrying exactly 300 neurons, or brain cells.
But these diminutive creatures are 80% genetically identical to humans and could hold the key to how our own brains work, including how to better manage chronic pain without the use of potentially problematic drugs.
“I’m interested in the changes in the brain when you learn and remember something,” says Dr Chew. “We think that for long-term memory there’s a particular change, and for short-term memory there’s another type of change.
“This is encoded in a particular part of the brain, and then upon remembering those brain cells become active again and chemical changes happen.”
But what does all this have to do with worms?
“These worms can do a lot with a small number of brain cells. They crawl around. They eat. They mate. They say, ‘Hi,’ to each other. They have interesting social behaviours. They move towards certain chemicals, avoid others,” says Dr Chew.
“We know a lot about what they do, but we still don't really know how they learn and change their behaviours depending on experience, or how that memory is encoded in their 300 neurons.”
These are all questions that scientists ask about bigger brains, but in the case of the worm, the process takes place in a dramatically more compact system which is easier to follow.
The worms’ transparency is also an advantage when it comes to microscopy because you can see the neurons in action in an intact animal, labelled with fluorescent proteins to distinguish the 10% or so that are chemical sensing neurons.