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Seeing into a fly’s brain: Neurobiologists use state-of-the-art methods to observe the activity of nerve cells while the fly sees moving stripe patterns on a LED screen (left). This technique enables the scientists to observe the response of single cells in the brain area which processes motion information

What would be the point of holding a soccer world championship if we couldn’t distinguish the ball from its background? Simply unthinkable! But then again, wouldn’t it be fantastic if your favourite team’s striker could see the movements of the ball in slow motion! Unfortunately, this advantage only belongs to flies.

The minute brains of these aeronautic acrobats process visual movements in only fractions of a second. Just how the brain of the fly manages to perceive motion with such speed and precision is predicted quite accurately by a mathematical model. However, even after 50 years of research, it remains a mystery as to how nerve cells are actually interconnected in the brain of the fly. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology are now the first to successfully establish the necessary technical conditions for decoding the underlying mechanisms of motion vision. The first analyses have already shown that a great deal more remains to be discovered.

The research is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience (July 11, 2010).

Back in 1956, a mathematical model was developed that predicts how movements in the brain of the fly are recognized and processed. Countless experiments have since endorsed all of the assumptions of this model. What remains unclear, however, is the question as to which nerve cells are wired to each other in the fly brain for the latter to function as predicted in the model. “We simply did not have the technical tools to examine the responses of each and every cell in the fly’s tiny, but high-powered brain,” as Dierk Reiff from the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried explains. That is hardly surprising, considering the minute size of the brain area that is responsible for the fly’s motion detection. Here, one sixth of a cubic millimetre of brain matter contains more than 100,000 nerve cells — each of which has multiple connections to its neighbouring cells. Although it seems almost impossible to single out the reaction of a certain cell to any particular movement stimulus, this is precisely what the neurobiologists in Martinsried have now succeeded in doing.

The brain of the fly beats any computer

The electrical activity of individual nerve cells is usually measured with the aid of extremely fine electrodes. In the fly, however, most of the nerve cells are simply too small to be measured using this method. Nevertheless, since the fly is the animal model in which motion perception has been studied in most detail, the scientists were all the more determined to prize these secrets from the insect’s brain. A further incentive is the fact that, albeit the number of nerve cells in the fly is comparatively small, they are highly specialized and process the image flow with great precision while the fly is in flight. Flies can therefore process a vast amount of information about proper motion and movement in their environment in real time — a feat that no computer, and certainly none the size of a fly’s brain, can hope to match. So it’s no wonder that deciphering this system is a worth-while undertaking.

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