Visualizing the Mind of a Fruit Fly

Dec 8, 2015

Scientists have developed a new tool that lights up active conversations between neurons during a behavior or sensory experience. To create labels that would persistently tag active synapses, the scientists split a fluorescent molecule in half, one half for the talking neuron (pre-) and one half for the listening neuron (post-). When an exchange occurs (i.e. the pre-synaptic neuron ‘fires’ a message), the two halves come together across the synapse and light up. Moreover, fluorescent molecules of three different colors allow unique labeling of different synapses in the same animal.

At first blush, reading the mind of the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster might seemingly not produce any profound insight toward philosophical and existential questions about our existence in the universe. However, many neuroscientists would look upon this view as provincial, since understanding the behavioral and sensory inputs from these insects may unlock many secrets of our own neurodevelopment.

Now, researchers at Northwestern University have developed a new method for lighting up active conversations between neurons when exposed to various external stimuli, such as smelling a banana. The scientists are hopeful that mapping these intricate patterns for individual neural connections will provide insights into the computational processes that underlie the workings of the human brain.

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4 comments on “Visualizing the Mind of a Fruit Fly

  • I was confused by the same thought at first. But then, thinking about it, the synapse is not like an extra conduit between the cells, but (I’m guessing) most likely a long thin extension of one cell which reaches out and touches the other cell (which in turn reaches out in other directions). So at some point where the two cells meet there must be a thin interface between them. It would be there the two halves of the molecule are located and “join” when the interface “opens” for the synapse to “fire”.

    Is that reasonable?

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  • The distance between source and target neurons at the synapse, or connection, is not millimeters (25.4 millimeters per inch), but nanometers (25.4 billion per inch). In a typical chemical synapse, the distance is around 20-30 nanometers (nm). To give you a better idea of how large this is, ONE nanometer is the width of 10 hydrogen atoms. So, this distance of 20-30 nm is small enough to be spanned by a molecular complex.

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