Neuroscientists have found a way to read the mind of a fly

Scientists were able to detect what a fly had experienced up to an hour in the past simply through observing its brain

Doug Bolton
Wednesday 16 December 2015 21:02
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Using fluorescent compounds from jellyfish, scientists were able to find what was going on in the minds of flies
Using fluorescent compounds from jellyfish, scientists were able to find what was going on in the minds of flies

Neuroscientists at Northwestern University in Illinois have figured out how to 'read the mind' of a fly, using a tool that can detect conversations between neurons in the insect's brain.

Using fluorescent molecules, the scientists were able to tag neurons in the brain, allowing them to identify which individual synapses were active during a given sensory experience.

These fluorescent compounds were derived from from a glowing protein found in jellyfish. The scientists took three differently-coloured signals, blue, green and yellow, and painstakingly applied them to different brain connections in the fly's most prominent sensory systems - its sense of smell, sight, and heat.

The fluorescent molecules were split in half, with one half being implanted in the 'talking' neuron and the other in the 'listening' neuron. When messages were sent between neurons, for example when the fly was in a cold environment, these two halves came together and lit up.

They stayed that way hours after the fly had gone through the experience, so by using a relatively simple microscope, the scientists were able to determine whether the fly had been in a hot or cold environment, or whether it had smelled banana or jasmine, up to an hour after the experience in question.

Marco Gallio, who led the study, explained: “Our results show we can detect a specific pattern of activity between neurons in the brain, recording instantaneous exchanges between them as persistent signals that can later be visualized under a microscope."

"Much of the brain’s computation happens at the level of synapses, where neurons are talking to each other," he added.

“Our technique gives us a window of opportunity to see which synapses were engaged in communication during a particular behavior or sensory experience. It is a unique retrospective label.”

It's not telepathic mind reading, but it's somewhat similar - simply by observing the insect's brain, they were able to tell what it had experienced in the past.

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