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Scientists Map Fruit Fly Brain

Why would neuroscientists spend four years studying fruit fly brains when the flies look nothing like humans? Well, as Dmitri Chklovskii and Shinya Takemura explained, their brains respond to movements in their environment very similarly to human brains.

With that in mind, the two researchers spent four years dissecting the brain circuitry of fruit flies. Chklovskii said, “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.”

As you can imagine, the process was incredibly time consuming, beginning with a frozen fruit fly brain and hi-tech slicing equipment.

Chklovskii said, “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 the end, the two neuroscientists processed an incredible 200,000 images from 2,800 brains. They were able to produce a complete three-dimensional image of a complex system of neurons and their connections – which are each a thousand times thinner than a human hair.

Takemura said, “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.”

Scientists believe that it may be possible to apply the lessons learned from dissecting simpler brains, like those of the fruit flies, to help understand human brain circuitry. The information could allow future generations to build sophisticated machines that can think as well as maps for medical scientists to develop treatments for neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.