Magazine article Science News

Neurons Linked to Specific Behaviors: New View of Larval Fly Brain Reveals Functions of Particular Cells

Magazine article Science News

Neurons Linked to Specific Behaviors: New View of Larval Fly Brain Reveals Functions of Particular Cells

Article excerpt

By scrutinizing the twists, turns, wiggles and squirms of 37,780 fruit fly larvae, neuroscientists have created an unprecedented view of how brain cells create behavior. The results, published March 27 in Science, draw direct connections between neurons and specific movements.

"Understanding how neural activity gives rise to behavior is the most important question in neuroscience," says MIT neuroscientist Kay Tye, who was not involved in the research. The new study provides a way for scientists to start answering that question, she says. "I think this is a really important approach that's going to be very influential."

Scientists led by Marta Zlatic of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va" took advantage of an existing set of specially mutated flies. In each animal, small groups of neurons, usually between two and 15 cells, were engineered to respond to blue light. By activating handfuls of neurons with light and analyzing videos of the resulting behaviors, the researchers systematically explored most of the 10,000 neurons in the larval brain of Drosophila melanogaster.

"It's like saturation bombing," says neuroscientist George Augustine of the Center for Functional Connectomics in Seoul, South Korea. "They're marching through pretty much all the neurons in the nervous system of this simple little creature and finding out what all of them do. That's dramatic. That's profound."

Because much of the experimental work was automated, it took only several months to test 37,780 larvae. "The real challenge," Zlatic says, "was dealing with the data."

The team developed a mathematical approach to look for patterns of behavior elicited by activating small groups of neurons. This computational method revealed behaviors that would have been impossible to identify otherwise, says neuroscientist Aravinthan Samuel of Harvard University. "If you just look at tons of videos, it's very hard to see structure," he says. "The human eye just isn't able to handle that much data."

But mathematics certainly can. By tracing larval movement in thousands of videos, the algorithm neatly described 29 distinct sequences of behaviors, the team reports. These behaviors included wiggles that help a larva escape from a threat, left turns followed by right turns and backward crawling.

The blue light failed to trigger some characteristic larval behaviors, such as a particular sort of predator-escaping roll, Zlatic says. …

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