James S.H. Wong and Catharine H. Rankin
The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), is an organism useful for the study of learning and memory at the molecular, cellular, neural circuitry, and behavioral levels. Its genetic tractability, transparency, connectome, and accessibility for in vivo cellular and molecular analyses are a few of the characteristics that make the organism such a powerful system for investigating mechanisms of learning and memory. It is able to learn and remember across many sensory modalities, including mechanosensation, chemosensation, thermosensation, oxygen sensing, and carbon dioxide sensing. C. elegans habituates to mechanosensory stimuli, and shows short-, intermediate-, and long-term memory, and context conditioning for mechanosensory habituation. The organism also displays chemotaxis to various chemicals, such as diacetyl and sodium chloride. This behavior is associated with several forms of learning, including state-dependent learning, classical conditioning, and aversive learning. C. elegans also shows thermotactic learning in which it learns to associate a particular temperature with the presence or absence of food. In addition, both oxygen preference and carbon dioxide avoidance in C. elegans can be altered by experience, indicating that they have memory for the oxygen or carbon dioxide environment they were reared in.
Many of the genes found to underlie learning and memory in C. elegans are homologous to genes involved in learning and memory in mammals; two examples are crh-1, which is the C. elegans homolog of the cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB), and glr-1, which encodes an AMPA glutamate receptor subunit. Both of these genes are involved in long-term memory for tap habituation, context conditioning in tap habituation, and chemosensory classical conditioning. C. elegans offers the advantage of having a very small nervous system (302 neurons), thus it is possible to understand what these conserved genes are doing at the level of single identified neurons. As many mechanisms of learning and memory in C. elegans appear to be similar in more complex organisms including humans, research with C. elegans aids our ever-growing understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of learning and memory across the animal kingdom.