Aug. 29 - Scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia have successfully mapped the circuitry in a small region of a fruit fly brain. The researchers, who work at HMMI's Janelia Farms Research Campus, say it is a small but important step toward understanding how the much larger human brain processes information. Rob Muir has more.
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Fruit flies look nothing like humans, but they respond to movements in their environment in much the same way as people, which is why Dmitri Chklovskii and Shinya Takemura from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have spent the past four years studying their brain circuitry.
SOUNDBITE (English) DR. DMITRI CHKLOVSKII PhD - HHMI, SAYING: "We would like to understand how the human brain works but we focus instead on simpler brains like those of fruit flies because we think that those brains operate on the same principles as human ones."
Neuroscientist Chklovskii and his team have produced a colour-coded three dimensional map of the neurons in the fruit fly's optic medulla, the part of the brain which processesignals sent from insects' eyes.
It was a time consuming process that began with a frozen fruit fly brain and hi-tech slicing machine.
SOUNDBITE (English) DR. DMITRI CHKLOVSKII PhD - HHMI SAYING: "To map out those wires we sliced the fly brain like you would say, prosciutto, and very, very thin sections and photographed each section under an electron microscope and then had computers trace those wires from photograph to photograph to reconstruct their shape like it is in the real brain."
In all, 200,000 images were processed from 2800 brain slices, producing a complete three-dimensional image of a complex system of neurons and their connections, each a thousand times thinner than a human hair.
SOUNDBITE (English) DR. SHINYA TAKEMURA PhD - HHMI, SAYING: "I think this network structure is the basis to understand what's going on, what the neuron does so I'm interested in identifying the basic neuron structures in the brain."
And scientists think they can eventually apply the lessons learned about fruit fly brain circuitry to humans, creating models for future generations to develop sophisticated machines that can think and maps for medical scientists to develop treatments for neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
SOUNDBITE (English) DR. DMITRI CHKLOVSKII PhD - HHMI, SAYING: "I am convinced that to understand how to cure neurological diseases we need to understand the operation of a healthy brain first and my dream is that by understanding how the brain computes we will be able to help cure those diseases."
But there's a long way to go. Both scientists acknowledge, they are only just scratching the surface.