Walter Besio, an engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island, is participating in a study involving multiple universities to monitor the brain activity of octopi.

Besio attended a neuroscience conference in 2017 and was approached by a colleague from Dartmouth University. Along with a few other professors from different colleges, Besio being the only member from URI, the team started to create a proposal. The professor from Dartmouth proposed the idea to record brain signals from octopi, and eventually, the suggestion turned into a full proposal and presented to a review panel.

The decision to use the octopus was due to its very advanced brain. It is more complex than most animals but developed differently than humans. The studies to find out how their brain works can lead to a deeper understanding of neuroscience.

To monitor the brain signals, Besio was tasked with making Electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes that can be sustained in salt water and read signals without being on the actual animal.

“Typical EEG electrodes convert signals that are flowing in your body into signals that your computers can read,” Besio said. “From ionic current flow in the body, such as salt and potassium, into electron current flow which then can be digitized, so then it becomes signals that the computer can read. And then what I’ve done instead of just a single electrode, I’ve made three electrodes out of a single electrode. So, our signals are smaller but because of the way we record them, it cancels out background noise. So, you’re just left with a local signal.”

The electrodes will not be on the octopus itself due to the way it manipulates its shape to move around. Instead, the research group is building a clear, small house where the octopus can live in and feel safe in. The electrodes will be spread around the inside of the house.

“What we’re going to do is put electrodes all around the inside of this little house where they’re going to stay and hope we can sense their brain signals,” Besio said. “Most likely, we can sense their muscles moving but hopefully we can be able to sense their brain as well.”

The EEG electrodes Besio is making will be slightly altered from the standard electrode material due to salt waters corrosive nature.

“What we are planning on doing is making them out of gold, currently we make them out of gold-plated copper, which copper corrodes in salt water, so now we are just going to use gold without the copper,” Besio said.

The study is going to last about one year, and over the course of that time, Besio will have to make sure the electrodes are working. He will also be editing and changing them to ensure the best results are received.

As of right now, Besio is working on the prototype, which will be tested sometime in early December to determine the feasibility of the task.

“Other people have done underwater recordings, just never done them with these types of electrodes that we have and with octopuses,” Besio said.

Besio was awarded $100,000 from the National Science Foundation to work on the project. Depending on the place the proposal is submitted, often only 10 percent of the proposals get funded. Many people submit proposals and do not end up with a grant. Luckily for Besio, his research group was able to gain the favor of the review board.

Besio has worked on various other projects, many of them related to neuroscience as well. Working with other professors in other schools, states and fields has given Besio a different perspective. He is able to share and compare ideas, as well as learn from other professionals.
Besio hopes this project will help the neuroscience world with future research and developments.

“If we can make this work, it can open up whole new fields of research for science research in undersea animals,” Besio said.