Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founding father of modern neuroscience, argued as early as the turn of the twentieth century that the differences between the simplest neural networks and the highly developed mammalian brain was merely like the difference in complexity between a pocket watch and an astronomical watch, even though both show the passage of time.

Later, researchers studying the nervous system, such as Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, recognized the enormous potential of the nervous system in molluscs (such as snails), and a number of research laboratories working with invertebrates were established worldwide. One of these was the Department of Experimental Zoology at the Balaton Limnological Institute in Tihany, which celebrated its 93rd birthday on July 2 this year, where the great pond snail (Lymnaea stagnalis) has been used as the basis for (neuro)biological research for more than 30 years. This mollusk with a simple nervous system exhibits vertebrate-like behavioral patterns (e.g., nutrition, movement, reproduction, and learning), and the working principle of the ‘brain’ processes responsible for developing behavioral patterns is not fundamentally different from that of vertebrates. At the same time, these ‘brain’ processes in the great pond snail – due to the simple structure of their nervous systems (e.g., fewer and larger, pigmented neurons) – are better suited to study in many ways than those of vertebrate organisms. The body of knowledge available to researchers may yet have significant scientific and innovative potential, for example in research on pollution, drugs, viruses and neurodegenerative diseases.

In order to make these possibilities widely accessible, the Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology Research Group of the Experimental Zoology Department of the Balaton Limnology Institute published a study in the D1-rated eLife journal jointly with British researchers (from the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK) and Dutch colleagues (from the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, the Netherlands). For example, their article argues that scholars have understood many of the basic molecular processes in human learning and memory development through the study of the great pond snail, and that there are genes in the snail (identified by their research team supported by the National Brain Research Program) responsible for aging and the emergence of human neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s diseases (Fodor et al., Invertebrate Neuroscience, 2020, 20:9). The review points out that further investigation of the model organism will provide further information leading to a more precise understanding of the underlying cellular-molecular mechanisms of the most complex brain functions, or even the (neuro)physiological effects of human drug residues on the aquatic ecosystem.

Contact: Dr Zsolt Pirger, pirger.zsolt[at]okologia.mta.hu