A ‘Deep Look’ into leeches’ comeback

Once widely used as a cure-all for an array of ailments, leeches are making a resurgence in the medical community just for being their bloodthirsty selves. The creepy, yet helpful, critters are featured this week in KQED’s Deep Look series.

UC Berkeley biologist David Weisblat has been studying leech development and evolution for more than 40 years.

Weisblat recently started a project to study their behavior and neurobiology. He has found that despite their simple nervous systems, leeches are capable of using cues from their environment to make decisions. “It’s pretty amazing, when you think about how simple they are,” he said.

In understanding how leeches find their way around with so few neurons, we can begin to understand how the nervous system processes and encodes information, Weisblat said. This could one day translate to bioengineering applications, he said, like designing small exploratory robots.

Doctors are also using leeches more and more in surgical procedures, like when reattaching fingers. The leech acts as a vein, drawing stale blood from the finger and allowing fresh oxygenated blood to come in. The leech’s saliva also contains chemicals that help prevent blood clots from forming in the damaged tissue.

Read the full story on KQED.