What ants can teach us about the operation of the human brain

Carrie Arnold writes: Deborah Gordon spent the morning of August 27 watching a group of harvester ants foraging for seeds outside the dusty town of Rodeo, N.M. Long before the first rays of sun hit the desert floor, a group of patroller ants was already on the move. Their task was to find out whether the area near the nest was free from flash floods, high winds, and predators. If they didn’t return to the nest, departing foragers would know it wasn’t safe to go search for food.

When the patrollers returned and the first foragers did leave, they scattered in all directions, hunting for the fat-laden, energy-rich seeds on which the colony depends. Other foragers waited in the entrance of the nest for the first wave to return. If lots of food were nearby, foragers would return and depart quickly, creating a massive chain reaction. If food was scarce, however, the second group of foragers might not leave the nest at all.

“It’s a brilliant system. The ants can take advantage of sudden windfalls of food but they don’t waste energy and resources if there’s nothing there,” said Gordon, who is an ecologist at Stanford University.

The behavior of each individual in the group is set by the rate at which it meets other ants and a set of basic rules. Its behavior alters that of its neighbors, which in turn affects the original ant, in a classic example of feedback. The result is astonishing, complex behavior. “Individually, an ant is dumb,” Gordon says. She gazes off into the distance and inhales sharply. “But the colony? That’s where the intelligence is.”

About 110 miles from Gordon’s offices in Palo Alto, Calif., Mark Goldman studies a different kind of complex, emergent behavior. Goldman is a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis. For most of his life, he was never particularly interested in ants. But when he traveled to Stanford in 2012 to plan some experiments with a colleague who had recently attended one of Gordon’s talks, something clicked.

“As I watched films of these ant colonies, it looked like what was happening at the synapse of neurons. Both of these systems accumulate evidence about their inputs—returning ants or incoming voltage pulses—to make their decisions about whether to generate an output—an outgoing forager or a packet of neurotransmitter,” Goldman said. On his next trip to Stanford, he extended his stay. An unusual research collaboration had begun to coalesce: Ants would be used to study the brain, and the brain, to study ants. [Continue reading…]

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