Crustacean Brain May Process Pain

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The last time you splurged on a live lobster for dinner, you might not have given any thought to how much the little guy was going to suffer as he boiled to death. Until recently many researchers believed the crustacean nervous system too primitive to process pain. But scientists at Queen's University in Belfast now think that crustaceans may be more sensitive to pain than previously thought.

The researchers used crabs as their test animals. And they found that crabs that experienced an electric shock when they hid under a safe, dark rock would eventually learn to avoid the hiding place. And that avoidance is key: the animals’ ability to remember the unpleasant shock and avoid it is consistent with the ability to feel and remember pain. If the behavior was merely a reflex, the critters would continue to visit the shelter.

The study is in the Journal of Experimental Biology. [Barry Magee and Robert W. Elwood, Shock avoidance by discrimination learning in the shore crab (Carcinus maenas) is consistent with a key criterion for pain] [Also see Nicola Stead, Painful Feelings in Crabs]

The situation is likely the same with lobsters. So before you break out the bibs and melted butter, it might be nice to put your future dinner on a little anesthetic ice.

—Gretchen Cuda Kroen

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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