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Can electricity help us regrow limbs, brains, 
and memory?

Shocking developments

Most developmental biologists have looked for clues to regeneration in gene expression or chemicals. But at Tufts, researchers are searching for the key in an altogether different area: electricity.

By manipulating the flow of electrical charges within cells, biology professor Michael Levin, A92, has altered regeneration of frogs’ legs, eyes, and tails. Eventually, his lab’s research may lead to breakthroughs to regrow limbs in humans or stop the progression of cancer.

The riddle of regeneration has tantalized Levin since he was an undergraduate at Tufts two decades ago. A child prodigy in computer science, Levin became fascinated with living systems while at Tufts, where he investigated how electrical signals influence embryonic development.

After continuing his studies at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine, he rejoined Tufts in 2008 as a professor of biology. The Levin Lab investigates the mechanisms behind cell development, regeneration, and cancer. In recognition of his work, he was appointed the Vannevar Bush Professor in 2011.

His latest studies have focused on regeneration of memories as well as body parts. An inch-long flatworm called planaria can regrow its head—brain and all. That raises the question: Does it retain its personality?

Surprisingly, the answer may be yes. By training worms in certain behaviors before decapitating them, Levin has shown that the worms grow back their memories along with their brains. He speculates that they somehow store these memories in other body tissues. With more research, these findings may help recover memories of those suffering from traumatic brain injury.