Volume 52, Number 2 2011 185
Molluscs have proven to be invaluable models for basic
neuroscience research, yielding fundamental insights into a
range of biological processes involved in action potential
generation, synaptic transmission, learning, memory, and,
more recently, nociceptive biology. Evidence suggests that
nociceptive processes in primary nociceptors are highly con-
served across diverse taxa, making molluscs attractive mod-
els for biomedical studies of mechanisms that may contribute
to pain in humans but also exposing them to procedures that
might produce painlike sensations. We review the physiol-
ogy of nociceptors and behavioral responses to noxious
stimulation in several molluscan taxa, and discuss the pos-
sibility that nociception may result in painlike states in at
least some molluscs that possess more complex nervous sys-
tems. Few studies have directly addressed possible emotion-
like concomitants of nociceptive responses in molluscs.
Because the deﬁ nition of pain includes a subjective compo-
nent that may be impossible to gauge in animals quite dif-
ferent from humans, firm conclusions about the possible
existence of pain in molluscs may be unattainable. Evolu-
tionary divergence and differences in lifestyle, physiology,
and neuroanatomy suggest that painlike experiences in mol-
luscs, if they exist, should differ from those in mammals. But
reports indicate that some molluscs exhibit motivational
states and cognitive capabilities that may be consistent with
a capacity for states with functional parallels to pain. We
therefore recommend that investigators attempt to minimize
the potential for nociceptor activation and painlike sensa-
tions in experimental invertebrates by reducing the number
of animals subjected to stressful manipulations and by
administering appropriate anesthetic agents whenever
practicable, welfare practices similar to those for vertebrate
Key Words: Aplysia; cephalopod; ethics; invertebrate;
mollusc; nociception; pain; sensitization
Nociceptive Biology and Evolution
Nearly all animals that have been studied display
marked behavioral responses to stimuli that cause
tissue damage—the ability to sense and respond to
noxious stimuli is an almost universal trait (Kavaliers 1988;
Smith and Lewin 2009; Sneddon 2004; Walters 1994). Noci-
ception, deﬁ ned as the detection of stimuli that are injurious
or would be if sustained or repeated, has clear adaptive ad-
vantages because it triggers withdrawal and escape during
injury or in the face of impending injury.
Nociception and Nociceptive Sensitization
The ﬁ rst stage of nociception occurs with the activation of
nociceptors, primary sensory neurons preferentially sensitive to
noxious stimuli or to stimuli that would become noxious
if prolonged (Sherrington 1906). Nociceptors were ﬁ rst
demonstrated in Chordata by Burgess and Perl (1967), in
Annelida by Nicholls and Baylor (1968), in Mollusca by
Walters and colleagues (1983a), in Nematoda by Kaplan and
Horvitz (1993), and in Arthropoda by Tracey and colleagues
(2003). Preliminary studies indicate that nociception in these
phyla involves many conserved sensory transduction processes
(Smith and Lewin 2009; Tobin and Bargmann 2004; Tracey
et al. 2003), although differences have also been found. It is
not yet known whether specialized nociceptors also occur in
other phyla, although this seems likely.
Many nociceptors exhibit a property rare among primary
sensory neurons: enhanced sensitivity produced by intense
stimulation of the sensory neuron’s peripheral terminals
(Campbell and Meyer 1983; Gold and Gebhart 2010; Hucho
and Levine 2007; Illich and Walters 1997; Light et al. 1992).
Enhancement of the sensitivity of a nociceptor, nociceptive
network, or behavioral response after noxious stimulation is
called nociceptive sensitization (Walters 1994; Woolf and
Nociceptive sensitization can be measured directly at the
neuronal and behavioral levels and has been investigated exten-
sively in mammals because it is thought to represent concrete,
quantiﬁ able effects that in humans are related to increased
pain sensitivity. As deﬁ ned by the International Association
for the Study of Pain (IASP; Merskey and Bogduk 1994),
increased pain sensitivity occurs in the form of hyperalgesia
(greater pain in response to a normally painful stimulus) and
allodynia (pain evoked by a stimulus that is not normally
Robyn J. Crook and Edgar T. Walters
Robyn J. Crook, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow and Edgar T. Walters, PhD, a
professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology at the
University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Robyn J. Crook,
Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology, University of Texas
Medical School at Houston, 6431 Fannin Street, Houston, TX 77030 or
Nociceptive Behavior and Physiology of Molluscs: Animal Welfare Implications
186 ILAR Journal
In a few molluscs and other invertebrates, mechanisms of
nociceptive sensitization have been investigated intensively
in hopes of discovering fundamental processes that contrib-
ute to hyperalgesia and allodynia in humans and other ani-
mals. Indeed, behavioral and neurophysiological alterations
in nociceptors during nociceptive sensitization appear
remarkably similar in snails and rats (Walters 1994, 2008;
Woolf and Walters 1991), and these alterations involve many
intra- and extracellular biological signaling pathways that
are highly conserved (Walters and Moroz 2009).
Interpreting Nociceptive Differences
There are numerous differences between the neuronal sys-
tems that mediate nociceptive sensitization in molluscs and
in mammals (as well as presumably enhanced pain in the
latter). At the axonal level, molluscs and other invertebrates
lack myelination, so conduction of information from one
part of the nervous system to another is usually much slower
than in vertebrates. At the synaptic level, an evolutionarily
recent expansion of the synaptic proteome in vertebrates
may underlie unique cognitive capabilities of this group (Ryan
and Grant 2009) and in principle also contribute to a poten-
tially unique capacity of vertebrates to experience pain.
Furthermore, at the neuroanatomical and, presumably,
neural network levels, little homology exists across any of
the phyla, which diverged before most of the evolution of
neuroanatomical structures in contemporary animals (Farris
2008). Thus noxious information in vertebrates is relayed
from primary nociceptors via neurons in the dorsal horn of
the spinal cord to brain structures including the thalamus and
the somatosensory, insular, and anterior cingulate cortices
(Peyron et al. 2000), but homologues to these brain struc-
tures do not exist in invertebrates. The fact that these areas
are not present in the invertebrate central nervous system
(CNS1) does not prove that invertebrates cannot feel pain;
independently derived neural structures might, in principle,
have evolved the capacity to mediate the same functions. For
example, some invertebrates (many cephalopods and some
insects) can process highly complex visual information even
though they lack a structure homologous to the mammalian
visual cortex. While it is plausible that the more elaborate
neural structures of mammals confer a capacity for the expe-
rience of pain, analogous processing in other phyla might
mediate painlike experiences using neural structures unrelated
to and quite different from those in the mammalian brain.
Similarity across phyla of nociceptive behavior, mecha-
nisms of nociception, and nociceptive sensitization implies
either deep homology of underlying mechanisms or conver-
gence arising from similar selection pressures among diverse
and distantly related taxa. Either of these possibilities may
permit insights into mechanisms important for pain and its
alleviation in vertebrates from studies of animals with far
1Abbreviation that appears ≥3x throughout this article: CNS, central nervous
simpler nervous systems. Invertebrates thus present two consid-
erable advantages: (1) research on a complex process in a sim-
pler system often permits a clearer picture of what is really
important, and (2) the study of states bearing similarities to pain
or unpleasantness in an animal that appears to have less capac-
ity to interpret and “feel” such sensations is more palatable to
scientists, to the public, and to animal welfare committees.
The presence in invertebrates of some nociceptive mech-
anisms that are homologous and/or convergent with those
important for pain in humans presents a question of ethics: If
scientists are willing to appeal to evolutionary conservatism
to support the use of “lower” animals to study physiological
building blocks that in humans contribute to pain and suffer-
ing (assuming that the information revealed will translate
to humans and other “higher” vertebrates), is it acceptable to
ignore possible implications of evolutionary conservation
that similar processing of nociceptive information by higher
and lower animals might in each case produce suffering? Are
there reasons to think that experimental unpleasantness is
less keenly felt by a snail or ﬂ y than by a mouse, monkey, or
human, and if so where should one draw the line when con-
ducting experiments that might cause suffering?
Nociception Versus Pain
Humans tend to experience nociception and pain as a single
phenomenon, but for the study of animals it is important to
draw a distinction between sensory activation and emotional
perception (see Braithwaite 2010 for an excellent discussion
of the separable nature of the two processes).
Deﬁ ning Nociception and Pain
Nociception is a capacity to react to tissue damage or im-
pending damage with activation of sensory pathways, with
or without conscious sensation. Activity in nociceptive sen-
sory pathways usually results in reﬂ exive behavioral responses
and may or may not result in other responses. Reﬂ exive with-
drawal responses tend to be mediated by very simple senso-
rimotor circuits optimized for speed and reliability and can
occur without input from higher processing centers, although
more complex escape and avoidance behaviors involve more
complex neural circuits (Chase 2002; Walters 1994). Even in
humans the initial reﬂ exive response to a noxious stimulus is
sometimes faster than can be consciously perceived, and
nociceptors can sometimes be activated without conscious
sensation (Adriaensen et al. 1980). Invertebrates that lack
appropriate processing centers may be capable of only this
rapid, unconscious processing.
The deﬁ nition of pain widely accepted by scientiﬁ c in-
vestigators is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience
associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or de-
scribed in terms of such damage” (Merskey and Bogduk 1994).
The emotional component required by this deﬁ nition of pain
makes its identiﬁ cation in other species, and especially in
species quite different from humans, extremely difﬁ cult, if
Volume 52, Number 2 2011 187
not impossible. This is because emotion is usually deﬁ ned in
terms of conscious experience (e.g., Izard 2009), and while
evidence of consciousness in some animals is available,
proof of consciousness is not (e.g., Allen 2004).
It is therefore important to distinguish between nocicep-
tion as detection of a noxious stimulus (which can be recog-
nized scientiﬁ cally by unambiguous behavioral and neural
responses), and pain as the unpleasant feeling associated
with that stimulus (and inferred by behavioral and neural re-
sponses of uncertain relation to consciousness).
Moreover, the emotional response during pain may be
linked to cognition, “knowing” in some sense that the sensa-
tion is negative and involves a threat to the body. Whereas
nociception leading to a nociceptive response can be medi-
ated by the simplest of neural circuits (in principle just a
single nociceptor connected to an effector system—e.g., a
muscle), pain requires neural circuitry that incorporates
additional functions, some of which might entail highly
complex processing by very large numbers of neurons.
Identifying Nociception and Pain in Animals
In invertebrates, like mammals, responses to noxious stimu-
lation can be complex. Indeed, immediate defensive responses
to injury or noxious stimulation are followed by a longer-
term phase (sometimes lasting weeks or months) where dam-
aged regions are hypersensitive (e.g., Walters 1987b) and some
invertebrates remember associations of the noxious event with
its context (e.g., Colwill et al. 1988; Walters et al. 1981).
To date, long-term nociceptive sensitization in inverte-
brates has been explained by long-term alterations of primary
sensory neurons (especially nociceptors) (e.g., Montarolo et al.
1986; Scholz and Byrne 1987; Walters 1987a) and motor
neurons (e.g., Cleary et al. 1998; Glanzman 2008; Weragoda
et al. 2004); there is little evidence for electrical activity or
alterations in other types of neurons that outlast a noxious
stimulus for more than tens of minutes (see Cleary et al.
1998; Marinesco et al. 2004). Interneurons and modulatory
neurons have received far less experimental attention be-
cause they are much more difﬁ cult to identify and sample
with the intracellular recording methods used for neurophys-
iological experiments on invertebrates. Truly systematic
investigations of the distribution and duration of enhanced
activity (possible neural correlates of pain) across an entire
nervous system will beneﬁ t from the development of func-
tional imaging methods for invertebrates (for a start, see Frost
et al. 2007; Zecevic et al. 2003) equivalent to those used to
examine patterns of activity in the mammalian brain after
noxious stimulation (e.g., Peyron et al. 2000; Tracey and
Several considerations suggest that pain may be absent
in at least some invertebrates. Capacities for processing all
types of information, including that involved in pain or pain-
like phenomena, increase with the size and complexity of a
nervous system, and mammals with the most complex brains
have, thus far, shown the most evidence for a capacity for
humanlike pain, although this might reﬂ ect a far greater ex-
perimental effort directed at vertebrates rather than genuine
differences in the invertebrate pain experience.
Nociceptive reﬂ exes and nociceptive plasticity can occur
without conscious, emotional experience because these re-
sponses are expressed not only in the simplest animals but
also in reduced preparations, such as spinalized animals
(Clarke and Harris 2001; Egger 1978) and snail ganglia
(Walters et al. 1983b). Similarly, in human patients nocicep-
tive reﬂ exes can occur without conscious awareness below a
level of complete spinal transection (Finnerup and Jensen
But conservation or convergence of physiological and
molecular mechanisms of nociception and nociceptive sensi-
tization across distant phyla does not necessarily imply that
higher-order phenomena (such as pain) that can be supported
by these mechanisms are equivalent. Even if the critical
mechanisms turn out not to be equivalent, it is not possible to
be certain that an animal does not feel pain, and thus the ethi-
cal questions remain (Allen 2004).
How can researchers balance the opportunities some
invertebrates offer for discovering mechanisms that, for
example, may alleviate chronic pain or slow dementia in
humans, with the possibility that the invertebrate subjects
might suffer? This is a fundamental problem for all of bio-
medical research, but has received very little consideration
in invertebrate studies. We refer readers to other articles in
this issue (Elwood 2011; Mather 2011) dealing with ethical
and philosophical considerations of invertebrate use.
Nociception and Painlike Phenomena
Molluscs have provided invaluable models for neuroscience,
yielding a wealth of basic information applicable to humans
and other vertebrates. A consideration of their nociceptive
behavior and physiology will inform choices about their op-
timal use for biomedical research and improve the welfare of
molluscs used in the laboratory.
Mollusca is a highly diverse and successful metazoan
phylum with over 100,000 species (Ponder and Lindberg 2008)
distributed among terrestrial, aquatic, and marine environments
and divided into seven classes: Aplacophora, Polyplaco-
phora, Monoplacophora, Scaphopoda, Bivalvia, Gastropoda,
and Cephalopoda. Along with great diversity in body plan,
lifestyle, and ecology, Mollusca encompasses enormous
intraphylum variation in sensory organs and neuroanatomy
(Bullock and Horridge 1965). Because the capacity for sens-
ing and integrating information about the environment and
an individual’s own body is probably important for the abil-
ity to feel pain or experience distress, this large variation in
neural and sensory complexity suggests that welfare con-
cerns may differ among groups.
The primary model species considered here are from the
gastropod and cephalopod clades; members of the other
classes are discussed brieﬂ y.
188 ILAR Journal
Monoplacophora, and Scaphopoda
The classes less commonly used in neurobiological research
tend to be the primitive, sedentary, or deepwater-dwelling
Aplacophora contains small wormlike molluscs that bur-
row into the substrate (Salvini-Plawen 1981) and have paired
ventral and dorsal nerve cords running along the body as
well as paired cerebral and buccal ganglia in the head. Visual
and vestibular organs are absent but putative mechanosensory
neurons innervate the oral surface (Shigeno et al. 2007).
Little is known about their behavior and nothing about the
physiology of sensory neurons.
Polyplacophora contains the chitons, generally intertidal
marine animals with multiple platelike shells covering the
dorsal surface. They have a simple nervous system without
pronounced cephalization. There are rows of primitive pho-
toreceptors along the dorsal surface and mechanosensory
organs around the mouth.
Monoplacophora is also an exclusively marine taxon of
limpetlike, conically shelled molluscs. Scaphopoda have a
single, tusklike shell through which water is pumped while
the animal remains mostly buried in the substrate. In both of
these groups the neural networks are simple and apparently
unspecialized and the ganglia are small. The simplicity of
their nervous systems and their behavior suggest that the
possibility of these animals experiencing painlike responses
to tissue insult is remote.
The Bivalvia (e.g., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) are
abundant in both marine and freshwater environments. Their
nervous system includes two pairs of nerve cords and three
pairs of ganglia (Brusca and Brusca 2003). There is no obvi-
ous cephalization and the nervous system appears quite sim-
ple. A population of mechanosensory neurons is activated
during the foot withdrawal reﬂ ex in a razor clam, but it is not
known if these are nociceptors (Olivo 1970).
Clams and scallops have simple eyes and chemosensory
organs located along the periphery of the mantle and they
initiate escape swimming if a threat is detected, thus some
integration of information and basic decision making occurs.
Escape swimming in scallops is driven by a motor pattern
generator in the cerebral ganglion and usually occurs after
chemosensory detection or contact with a starﬁ sh predator
that would normally precede tissue destruction (Wilkins
1981), suggesting that nociception may be involved. How-
ever, to our knowledge there are no published descriptions of
behavioral or neurophysiological responses to tissue injury
Although a number of studies have claimed that en-
dogenous opioids (e.g., Stefano and Salzet 1999) and opioid
receptors (e.g., Cadet and Stefano 1999) are expressed in
the mussel Mytilus edilus, particularly in immunocytes,
neither genes for proopiomelanocortin (POMC) nor opi-
oid receptors are found in Drosophila melanogaster or
Caenorhabditus elegans, and their reported existence in
other invertebrates, including molluscs, is controversial (Dores
et al. 2002; Li et al. 1996).
This class includes terrestrial, freshwater, and marine spe-
cies (e.g., snails, slugs, limpets, whelks, and many others).
Typically the shell and body are coiled, although in some
taxa (e.g., terrestrial slugs, sea hares, nudibranchs) the shell
Gastropods have more diverse and specialized sensory
organs than the groups above and are typically motile and
active foragers. Along with increased range of habitats and
associated morphologies, their behavioral range is greater
and this is reﬂ ected in increased neural complexity. The basic
molluscan nervous system is present (Bullock and Horridge
1965) but is expanded in terms of both the number of cells
and their specialization. Many gastropods have giant neu-
ronal somata, which have been used to advantage for neu-
ronal analyses of behavioral mechanisms (Chase 2002;
Kandel 1976) and perhaps most prominently for investiga-
tions of learning and memory mechanisms (Kandel 2001).
Gastropods have also provided the largest number of studies
of nociceptive behavior and sensitization in invertebrates, in
part because noxious mechanical and electrical stimuli have
been used in many learning and memory studies. Some of
these studies have used pulmonate (air-breathing) snails but
most have used opisthobranch (rear-positioned gills) snails.
We know of no studies of nociceptive behavior or physiology
in the remaining group of gastropods—the prosobranchs.
Pulmonates descended from gastropod molluscs that moved
from the sea to terrestrial and freshwater habitats. The most
extensively studied pulmonate is Helix (several different
species on different continents), which is prey to many gen-
eralist predators such as birds and frogs. Thus the well-
developed defensive and aversive behaviors elicited by noxious
sensory input during failed predation attempts in this genus
should be subject to continuing selection.
When presented with a potentially threatening tactile
stimulus to soft tissue, Helix, like other pulmonates, with-
draws reﬂ exively, a behavior mediated by simple neural cir-
cuitry including sensory neurons that appear to be nociceptors
(Balaban 2002; Ierusalimsky and Balaban 2007). Noxious
stimulation can sensitize this behavior. Repeated electric
shocks to the foot (which probably activate nociceptors) re-
sult in a reduced response threshold to an innocuous me-
chanical stimulus that persists several days after the shocks,
and this long-term behavioral sensitization is associated with
several alterations in the circuit that mediates the withdrawal
response (Balaban 1983, 1993; Prescott and Chase 1999).
Volume 52, Number 2 2011 189
Other pulmonates used to investigate responses to nox-
ious stimuli include Lymnaea stagnalis (Sakharov and Rozsa
1989) and Megalobulimus abbreviatus (Kalil-Gaspar et al.
2007). The latter study is of interest because it provided
pharmacological evidence for nociceptive actions of an ion
channel highly expressed in mammalian nociceptors (the tran-
sient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member
1, or TRPV1, the capsaicin receptor).
As explained above, the ability to perceive noxious in-
formation as emotionally unpleasant is a delineating point
between simple nociception and pain. Helix, with a brain
containing only about 20,000 neurons in 11 ganglia, might
be presumed to be incapable of higher-order processing nec-
essary for emotional responses. Interestingly, however, some
evidence suggests an emotionlike reaction in Helix.
Experiments using electrodes implanted into two differ-
ent ganglia allowed animals to “self-stimulate” either of the
two neural regions by pressing a bar (Balaban 1993; Balaban
and Chase 1991). Results from this experiment suggested
that different CNS regions of snails have some rudimentary
“emotional coloration”: snails self-stimulated more fre-
quently when the electrodes were placed in the mesocerebral
region of the cerebral ganglion (containing some neurons in-
volved in sexual behavior) and less frequently when they
were placed in the rostral portion of the parietal ganglion, in
an area where electrical stimulation of putative nociceptive
sensory neurons underlying reﬂ exive withdrawal behavior
was likely (Balaban 2002). But relatively little is known
about the anatomical organization and actual functions of
most neurons in either of these ganglionic regions. A lack of
follow-up reports of snail self-stimulation raises questions
about the robustness of this ﬁ nding.
An apparent ability to remember and choose to avoid a
negative stimulus would suggest that a snail can selectively
modify its behavior on the basis of aversive experience in
ways similar to mammals. This would not show that Helix
can experience pain but it would suggest that fundamental
components of painlike information processing in vertebrates
might be present in a rudimentary fashion in some molluscs.
The marine opisthobranch Aplysia californica is the leading
invertebrate model system for analyzing cellular bases of
behavioral and neural plasticity in many contexts (Kandel
1976, 2001). Aplysia has nine central ganglia containing
only about 10,000 neurons (Cash and Carew 1989), of which
several hundred have been identiﬁ ed by soma size and loca-
tion, electrophysiological properties, synaptic connections,
and behavioral effects. Aplysia and many other molluscs
also have numerous neuronal cell bodies in peripheral nerve
nets (Bullock and Horridge 1965; Moroz 2006).
Most studies of learning and memory mechanisms in
Aplysia have used known mechanosensory neurons. Initial
studies used these neurons in the abdominal ganglion that
innervate the siphon (Byrne et al. 1974), but later studies
used homologous sensory neurons in each pleural ganglion
that innervate most of the rest of the body surface (Walters et al.
1983a, 2004). Moreover, both sets of neurons function as
nociceptors (Illich and Walters 1997; Walters et al. 1983a)
and thus their rich plasticity is highly relevant to nociceptive
functions. Both sets of nociceptors display prominent sensi-
tizing effects, associated with short- and long-term sensitiza-
tion of defensive behavior (gill and siphon withdrawal, tail
withdrawal, head withdrawal) after noxious stimulation.
These effects include enhancement of synaptic transmission
(reviewed by Kandel 2001; Walters 1994) and hyperexcit-
ability of the nociceptor expressed in its peripheral terminals
(especially near a site of injury), neuronal cell body, axons,
and near its presynaptic terminals (Billy and Walters 1989;
Gasull et al. 2005; Reyes and Walters 2010; Weragoda et al.
2004). Such alterations are similar to those described in
studies of nociceptive sensitization in rodents and humans,
suggesting that some mechanisms that promote pain in ver-
tebrates are also present in molluscs and, most likely, in
other invertebrate taxa as well (Walters and Moroz 2009).
Interesting similarities also exist in the behavioral re-
sponses of Aplysia and mammals to noxious stimulation.
Aplysia displays the nearly ubiquitous pattern of immediate
withdrawal reﬂ exes, rapid escape, and prolonged recupera-
tive behaviors exhibited across all major phyla (reviewed by
Kavaliers 1988; Walters 1994; see also Babcock et al. 2009;
Walters et al. 2001).
In addition, Aplysia responds with a motivational state
resembling conditioned fear to previously neutral chemosen-
sory stimuli associated with noxious electric shock (Walters
et al. 1981). For example, after pairing with shock, the smell
of shrimp evoked a state that was not obvious unless com-
bined with other stimuli—indeed, when only the shrimp
extract was presented, the animal exhibited a response remi-
niscent of the freezing exhibited by rats to a conditioned fear
stimulus (Walters et al. 1981). When tested in combination
with weak tactile stimulation, the shrimp extract greatly facili-
tated head and siphon withdrawal responses, defensive ink-
ing, and escape locomotion. Moreover, when delivered to a
feeding animal, the conditioned smell inhibited the feeding.
These extensive and motivationally consistent associa-
tive alterations (see also Colwill et al. 1988) suggest that
memory of a noxious event in snails can be linked to a fear-
like motivational state that can dramatically alter the animal’s
response to other biologically signiﬁ cant stimuli. Unfortunately,
almost nothing is known about the neuroanatomical loci and
speciﬁ c neurons involved in this “higher-order” processing
of nociceptive information in opisthobranch ganglia.
Nociceptive sensitization has also been reported in the
marine nudibranch Tritonia diomedea (Frost et al. 1998),
and associatively conditioned avoidance behavior after nox-
ious conditioning stimulation has been investigated in the
notaspid Pleurobranchaea californica (Jing and Gillette 2003;
Mpitsos and Davis 1973). Both of these species offer many
advantages for cellular analyses, but they are difﬁ cult to ob-
tain commercially and have been investigated much less
extensively than has Aplysia.
190 ILAR Journal
In most animals, including Aplysia, nociceptive path-
ways show a period of inhibition after strong noxious stimu-
lation as the animal engages in escape and active defense
(Mackey et al. 1987; Walters 1994). Opioids contribute sub-
stantially to nociceptive inhibition in vertebrates but, despite
indirect evidence for opioid signaling—such as pharmaco-
logical actions of opioids (e.g., met-enkephalin) and opioid
antagonists (e.g., naloxone) in molluscs (Kavaliers 1988;
Leung et al. 1986)—molecular evidence does not yet pro-
vide ﬁ rm support for true opioid signaling in invertebrates
(Dores et al. 2002). Moreover, application of enkephalins
fails to produce inhibitory effects on the gill withdrawal re-
ﬂ ex (Cooper et al. 1989) or known nociceptors (Brezina et al.
1987) in Aplysia. Instead another peptide, FMRFamide, may
be a major transmitter that produces immediate and long-
term suppressive effects on nociceptor excitability, synaptic
transmission, and defensive reﬂ exes in Aplysia (Belardetti
et al. 1987; Mackey et al. 1987; Montarolo et al. 1988).
Cephalopoda is an exclusively marine class that comprises
squid, cuttleﬁ sh, octopus, and nautilus. The cephalopod shell
is chambered and external in nautilus, internal in cuttleﬁ sh,
and reduced or absent in squid and octopuses. Cephalopods
are the most neurologically complex invertebrates, with cen-
tralized brains divided into specialized lobes capable of pro-
cessing and integrating complex visual, chemical, and tactile
sensory inputs. The octopus CNS has around 500 million
cells (Young 1963), vastly more than that of gastropods. The
octopus also has an enormous peripheral nervous system,
separate from the CNS (Rowell 1966; Young 1963). Indeed,
the number of neuronal cell bodies in the arms of the octopus
is close to that of the central brain.
Cephalopods show complex behavior and are excellent
learners, with reports of sensitization, habituation, associative
learning, spatial learning, and even (although controversial)
observational learning (see reviews by Hanlon and Messenger
1998; Hochner et al. 2006). Despite the extensive literature
on cephalopod behavior, there have been no systematic be-
havioral or physiological investigations into nociception and
Cephalopods are also less commonly used for studies of
neurophysiology due to the complex neuroanatomy of the
cephalopod CNS, the small size of the neuronal cell bodies,
and the lack of overshooting action potentials or large synaptic
potentials that can be recorded from the cell bodies (Hochner
et al. 2006). Nothing is known about where nociceptive in-
formation is processed in the cephalopod brain. Evidence for
nociception in cephalopods is therefore exclusively behavioral.
In various learning paradigms electric shock to the arms
of an octopus has been used effectively as a negative rein-
forcement (Boycott and Young 1955; Darmaillacq et al. 2004;
Shomrat et al. 2008; Young 1961), indicating that the animal
ﬁ nds this stimulation aversive, but nociceptors have not yet
been described in any cephalopod. Octopuses are capable of
regenerating damaged or amputated arms, but there are no
published studies of behavioral adaptations to damaged or
Although electric shock elicits defensive responses, an
intriguing anecdote from Jacques Cousteau (1973, 23-24) de-
scribing an octopus’ behavior during exposure to damag-
ing heat suggests the absence of a response to intense thermal
One day at Octopus City, in the Bay of Alicaster, Dumas
dived with an underwater rocket and began waving it in
front of an octopus’ house. Nothing happened. The ani-
mal reacted not at all. He did not try to hide, or to escape.
Dumas then turned the beam directly onto the octopus,
which did not even draw [sic] its arms. The game was
called off, however, when Dumas saw that it was becom-
ing cruel. The octopus showed signs of having been
burned. But even then it had not tried to escape from it.…
This surprising insensitivity to ﬁ re has been conﬁ rmed by
Guy Hilpatric, one of the pioneers of diving, who told us
that he has seen an octopus, which had been brought onto
shore, cross through a ﬁ re to get back into the water.
Although it is potentially valuable for an animal (particularly
an intertidal species) to sense when environmental tempera-
tures are approaching dangerous levels, selection pressure
for nociceptors tuned to extreme heat is unlikely in most
aquatic animals. It would certainly be interesting to examine
this question in marine invertebrates adapted for life around
hydrothermal vents where extreme heat exposure may be a
hazard. An interesting question following from Cousteau’s
anecdote is whether the burned octopus would eventually
sense and respond to signals released by the damaged ﬂ esh
or to inﬂ ammatory mediators released during repair of the
tissue, as occurs in mammals.
Apart from the nautilus, which retains its external shell,
cephalopods have traded the protection of the molluscan
shell for an increase in locomotive efﬁ ciency and speed.
Their soft bodies, almost completely unprotected, should be
subject to occasional survivable injuries during failed preda-
tion attempts, food contests, and mating competitions. It thus
seems probable that nociceptors exist in cephalopods. We
have begun our own investigations into this possibility by
examining behavioral responses of the squid (Loligo pealei)
to peripheral, sublethal injury to an arm (R. Crook, T. Lewis,
R. Hanlon, and E.T. Walters, unpublished observations).
Sensitization of defensive responses to tactile and visual
stimuli occurs and persists for at least 48 hours after injury,
suggesting that basic behavioral responses to injury in ce-
phalopods may be similar to those in gastropods and verte-
brates, but further study is needed.
Notwithstanding the lack of evidence for pain perception
in cephalopods, in the United Kingdom octopus are covered
by the same welfare act that governs procedures on verte-
brates (UK Animals [Scientiﬁ c Procedures] Act 1986)2 and
2Available online (www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1986/14/contents), accessed
on April 4, 2011.
Volume 52, Number 2 2011 191
in Canada and Europe an approved welfare protocol is re-
quired for the use of cephalopod species in research (CCAC
1993; EU directive 86/609/EEC, updated September 20103).
Cephalopods have far more complex brains and behav-
iors than any other invertebrate and are capable of impres-
sive cognitive tasks (see Hochner et al. 2006, for review).
For example, both the brainy octopus (Boal et al. 2000) and
“primitive” nautilus (Crook et al. 2009) are capable of verte-
bratelike spatial learning. Given these sophisticated cogni-
tive abilities, an important question is whether nociceptive
responses in cephalopods are accompanied by affective and
cognitive processing functionally similar to some of the pro-
cessing that is important for pain states in mammals.
Anesthesia in Molluscs
Until the early 1970s physiological and biochemical studies
of molluscs dispensed with any anesthetics. This practice re-
ﬂ ected the widespread assumption that invertebrates cannot
feel pain, a view that is still common (and used to condone,
for example, the preparation of living cephalopods, snails,
and lobsters for human meals by methods that would cause
intense, prolonged stimulation of nociceptors if applied to
Several studies of the mechanisms of action of widely
used mammalian anesthetics exploited the experimental
advantages of the giant axon of the squid and the giant cell
bodies in gastropod molluscs such as Aplysia (e.g., Frazier
et al. 1975; Winlow et al. 1992). But these anesthetics were
not used by researchers during their dissections, in part be-
cause many of the mammalian anesthetics and analgesics,
including opioids (Cooper et al. 1989), were not very effec-
tive in molluscs (although there were interesting exceptions,
including volatile general anesthetics that potently open po-
tassium channels that hyperpolarize and reduce excitability
in Aplysia nociceptors; Winegar et al. 1996; Winegar and
Yost 1998). The widespread use of anesthesia during dissec-
tion of Aplysia began when investigators interested in learn-
ing and memory realized that dissection without anesthesia
could cause sensitizing effects that would interfere with the
neuronal plasticity they were studying.
The anesthetic of choice for both gastropods (Pinsker
et al. 1973) and cephalopods (Messenger et al. 1985; Mooney
et al. 2010) is isotonic magnesium chloride solution, typi-
cally applied by injection for gastropods and immersion for
cephalopods. Magnesium ions provide an ideal anesthetic
(and muscle relaxant) because they are normally present at
relatively high concentrations (especially in marine mol-
luscs) and thus are relatively nontoxic, their effects are rap-
idly reversible, and the agent is both inexpensive and highly
effective (Walters 1987b). The effectiveness of magnesium
chloride in gastropods is a result of its inhibition of neu-
rotransmitter release at chemical synapses, its depressive ef-
fect on voltage-gated sodium channels, reducing membrane
3Available online (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/
home_en.htm), accessed on April 4, 2011.
excitability (e.g., Liao and Walters 2002), and the fact that it
is used at high concentrations and injection volumes (>25%
of the animal volume) in combination with a balanced reduc-
tion of sodium ions (a reduction that by itself reduces excit-
ability). Effectiveness probably also depends on leakiness of
the primitive blood-ganglion or blood-nerve barriers of most
molluscs (Abbott 1987). Applied magnesium chloride does
not penetrate these barriers in vertebrates, precluding its use
as an anesthetic in mammals. Given that cephalopods also
have a highly effective blood-brain barrier (ibid.) and rela-
tively impermeable skin, the mechanisms underlying the
anesthesia that occurs during the animal’s immersion in iso-
tonic magnesium chloride are an interesting mystery.
We refer readers to Cooper (2011, in this issue) for fur-
ther discussion of analgesia and anesthesia in invertebrates.
Evolutionary Selection Pressures and
Painlike Phenomena in Molluscs
Insight into the extent to which nociception may lead to pain
in molluscs can come from considering possible selective
advantages of pain during evolution.
Nociception, like any prominent trait in animals, has
been selected and reﬁ ned over millions of years by evolu-
tionary processes that act to enhance survival and reproduc-
tive success. The adaptive value of nociception is obvious
and probably universal: it permits rapid avoidance of a dam-
aging stimulus and escape from the context in which such
damage occurs. Escape may be from predators, aggressive
conspeciﬁ cs, or threatening environmental features (e.g.,
The adaptive value of experiencing pain is more difﬁ cult
to identify, although clues are available from likely conse-
quences of nociceptive responses for survival under natural
conditions. A strong negative emotion motivates rapid avoid-
ance learning, decreasing the chances of reexposure to a nox-
ious stimulus. This interpretation raises the question of how
much neural processing power is required for emotional re-
sponses. Behaviorally expressed motivational states (deﬁ ned
without reference to consciousness) mediated by the actions
of neuromodulators on relatively simple circuits in Aplysia
have been suggested to have functional similarities to emo-
tional states in mammals (Kupfermann 1979), and this is
consistent with properties of the conditioned fearlike state in
Aplysia described above. However, from a functional and
evolutionary point of view, there is no need for these states
to involve conscious experience by the animal.
In social animals, awareness and communication of in-
jury can be advantageous, allowing not only the behavioral
alterations that guard or rest an injured body part (at the ex-
pense of other behaviors such as foraging) but also the re-
cruitment of caregivers to help protect and provide for an
incapacitated individual during recovery. In nonsocial animals
(which may include all molluscs, as even those that ag-
gregate do so opportunistically for exploitation of a local
resource, not for social interactions), obvious behavioral
192 ILAR Journal
changes resulting from injury may be neutral or maladaptive
(attracting the attention of predators or aggressive conspe-
ciﬁ cs). Thus it is unlikely that painlike states would have
evolved in molluscs to promote communication with poten-
Animals with high metabolic rates, such as squid, must
forage frequently to survive and thus cannot suppress active
behavior for very long during recuperation (when pain is of-
ten worst in mammals), so this common behavioral correlate
of pain would be maladaptive in such animals, although on-
going pain that promotes minor behavioral changes to protect
an injured appendage as a tradeoff against small reductions
in foraging success may be highly adaptive. Animals under
predation pressure (which includes almost all molluscs, and
particularly those lacking primary defenses such as a hard
shell or aposematic signals) probably derive minimal value
from sustained painful “feelings” if their expression renders
them more vulnerable to predators. Thus, while an acute re-
sponse to injury promoting escape and survival should be
strongly selected, and long-term increases in sensitivity to
potentially threatening stimuli are likely to be adaptive (Walters
1994), persistent painlike states that profoundly alter ongo-
ing behavior (e.g., decreasing foraging or mating activity)
may not be adaptive in molluscs.
All molluscs examined have shown a capacity for nocicep-
tion as demonstrated by behavioral responses and/or by
direct recording from nociceptors and other neurons. Noci-
ception and nociceptive sensitization at the level of primary
nociceptors make use of neuronal mechanisms that appear to
be highly conserved and widespread throughout the animal
But not all mechanisms related to nociceptive biology
are widely shared. For example, analgesiclike effects mediated
by true opioids and opioid receptors may be absent in inver-
tebrates (Dores et al. 2002), and vertebrates may possess
some synaptic mechanisms that are absent in invertebrates
(Ryan and Grant 2009). Moreover, the sharing of many basic
molecular building blocks does not imply sharing of higher-
order processes that depend on those building blocks. For
example, nearly all known brain functions in most phyla
depend on action potentials generated by the operation of
highly conserved sodium channels, but only a few species
have brains with the capacity to learn a spoken language or
do arithmetic—thus voltage-gated sodium channels are es-
sential for learning German or solving equations, but their
presence does not imply the capacity for proﬁ ciency in Ger-
man or algebra. At some level this must also be true for the
capacity to experience pain.
Immediate and longer-term neuronal and behavioral re-
sponses (including nociceptive memory and simple associa-
tive learning) can be mediated entirely by a single small
ganglion, such as the abdominal ganglion in Aplysia, prov-
ing that these effects do not need complex neural structures
(e.g., Antonov et al. 2003; Illich and Walters 1997). Some
gastropods, which have simple nervous systems compared to
cephalopods, exhibit changes in state with apparent func-
tional similarities to emotional states, as illustrated by “con-
ditioned fear” and “self-stimulation” in Aplysia and Helix,
respectively (Balaban and Chase 1991; Walters et al. 1981).
Given the capabilities of relatively simple molluscan
nervous systems, and if a key to the experience of pain is the
size and complexity of the nervous system, one must seri-
ously consider the possibility that cephalopods can experi-
ence some form of pain. The most complex and behaviorally
sophisticated of molluscs, cephalopods have vastly more
complex central nervous systems, with up to 500 million
neurons, distinctive internal divisions of the brain, specialized
integrative regions where diverse sensory inputs are pro-
cessed (Boycott and Young 1955), and dense, specialized in-
nervation of the periphery (Hochner et al. 2006). If subjective
pain experience requires a minimal level of network com-
plexity and processing power, these animals’ brains might
approach that level.
Scientiﬁ cally accepted deﬁ nitions of pain and nocicep-
tion neatly distinguish these concepts (e.g., Merskey and
Bogduk 1994), but drawing a line between the two can be
difﬁ cult in practice. Furthermore, no experimental observation
of nonverbal animals (nonhumans) can demonstrate conclu-
sively whether a subject experiences conscious pain (Allen
2004). Suggestive evidence for painlike experiences in some
animals is available, and nociceptive responses measured at
the neural and behavioral levels in molluscs have provided
evidence that is both consistent and inconsistent with pain-
like states and functions. Unfortunately, inferences drawn
from the relatively small body of relevant data in molluscs
are limited and prone to anthropocentrism. Identifying signs
of pain becomes increasingly difﬁ cult as the behavior and
associated neural structures and physiology diverge from
familiar mammalian patterns of behavior, physiology, and
anatomy, making interpretation of responses in molluscs
particularly difﬁ cult.
In the laboratory, molluscs are often subjected to manip-
ulations that produce nociceptive responses, either as the aim
of an experiment or as a byproduct. Profound differences
between molluscs and mammals in the size, complexity, and
structure of their nervous systems, as well as their lifestyles
and evolutionary history, suggest that painlike phenomena, if
they exist in some molluscs, are likely to be quite different
from pain in mammals, although it does not follow that mol-
luscs are incapable of experiencing pain. Gastropod and
cephalopod molluscs have shown long-lasting behavioral
alterations induced by noxious experience, which probably
involve motivational states that can be used ﬂ exibly to alter
defensive and appetitive responses. This suggests that some
molluscs may be capable not only of nociception and noci-
ceptive sensitization but also of neural states that have some
functional similarities to emotional states associated with
pain in humans.
While it seems improbable that any mollusc has a capac-
ity to feel pain equivalent to that evident in social mammals,
Volume 52, Number 2 2011 193
the existence of some similarities in nociceptive physiology
between molluscs and mammals, the paucity of systemic in-
vestigations into painlike behavior in molluscs, and the logi-
cal impossibility of disproving the occurrence of conscious
experience in other animals all suggest that it is appropriate
to treat molluscs as if they are susceptible to some form of
pain during experimental procedures.
In conclusion, we recommend that the design of experi-
ments using molluscs, particularly those with larger and more
complex ganglia or brains (especially cephalopods but also
gastropods), take into account the possibility of a capacity
for painlike experience in these animals. Effective anesthet-
ics (e.g., magnesium chloride) should be used during dissec-
tions and, to the extent possible, during any procedure that
produces tissue damage or possible stress. Investigators whose
experiments unavoidably produce noxious stimulation should
employ efforts similar to those required for vertebrate sub-
jects to reduce both the number of animals and the potential
for suffering to the minimum needed to test their hypotheses.
Balancing the beneﬁ ts from knowledge gained in mol-
luscan experiments with the potential for inﬂ icting pain and
distress in the experimental subjects should be an explicit
consideration in molluscan studies. (For related guidance to
IACUC members, we refer readers to Harvey-Clark 2011, in
Supported by NIH grant NS35979 (ETW) and a Marine Bio-
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