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Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative

Why Flies and Humans Freeze When Startled

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When faced with something unexpected and potentially ominous, like a sudden, loud noise or a threat of danger, humans often freeze before we act. This is colloquially referred to as the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon. The movie of fruit flies that you see above may help explain the ancient origins of the “startle response” and other biomechanical aspects of motion.

In this video, which shows a footrace between two flies (Drosophila melanogaster), there are no winners or losers. Their dash across the screen provides a world-class view of the biomechanics of walking in these tiny, 3 millimeter-long insects that just won’t sit still.

The fly at the top zips along at about 25 millimeters per second, the normal walking speed for Drosophila. As a six-legged hexapod, the fly walks with a “tripod gait,” alternating between its stance phase—right fore (RF), left middle (LM), and right hind (RH) —and its swing phase sequence of left fore (LF), right middle (RM), and left hind (LH).

The slowpoke at the bottom of the video clocks in at a mere 15 millimeters per second. This fly’s more-tentative gait isn’t due to an injury or a natural lack of speed. What is causing the delay is the rapid release of the chemical messenger serotonin into its nervous system, which models a startle response.

You may have already heard about serotonin because of its role in regulating mood and appetite in humans. Now, a team led by Richard S. Mann and Clare Howard, Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York, has discovered that fruit flies naturally release serotonin to turn on neural circuits that downshift and steady the speed of their gait.

As detailed recently in Current Biology [1], serotonin is active under myriad conditions to tell flies to slow things down. For example, serotonin helps flies weather the stress of extreme temperatures, conserve energy during bouts of hunger, and even walk upside down on the ceiling.

But the research team, which was supported by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, found that serotonin’s most-powerful effect came during an actual startle response, prompted by a sudden, jolting vibration. Scientists suspect the release of serotonin activates motor neurons much like an emergency brake, stiffening and locking up the fly’s leg joints. When the researchers blocked the fly’s release of serotonin, it interrupted their normal startle response.

In years past, such a detailed, high-resolution “action video” of Drosophila, one of the most-popular model organisms in biology, would have been impossible to produce. Fruit flies are tiny and possess extremely high energy.

But a few years ago, the Mann lab developed the approach used in this video to bring the hurried gait of fruit flies into tight focus [2]. Their system combines an optical touch sensor and high-speed video imaging that records the footfalls of all six of a fly’s feet.

Then, using the lab’s unique software program called FlyWalker , the researchers can extract various biomechanical parameters of walking in time and space. These include step length, footprint alignment, and, as the letters in the video show, the natural sequence of a tripod gait.

Drosophila may be a very distant relative of humans. But these ubiquitous insects that sometimes buzz around our fruit bowls contain many fundamental clues into human biology, whether the area of research is genetics, nutrition, biomechanics, or even the underlying biology of the startle response.

Reference:

[1] Serotonergic Modulation of Walking in Drosophila. Howard CE, Chen CL, Tabachnik T, Hormigo R, Ramdya P, Mann RS. Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 22.

[2] Quantification of gait parameters in freely walking wild type and sensory deprived Drosophila melanogaster. Mendes CS, Bartos I, Akay T, Márka S, Mann RS. Elife. 2013 Jan 8;2:e00231.

Links:

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Mann Lab (Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York)

MouseWalker Colored Feet (YouTube)

NIH Support: National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


‘Tis the Season for Good Cheer

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Whether it’s Rockefeller Center, the White House, or somewhere else across the land, ‘tis the season to gather with neighbors for a communal holiday tree-lighting ceremony. But this festive image has more do with those cups of cider in everyone’s hands than admiring the perfect Douglas fir. What looks like lights and branches are actually components of a high-resolution map from a part of the brain that controls thirst.

The map, drawn up from mouse studies, shows that when thirst arises, neurons activate a gene called c-fos (red)—lighting up the tree—indicating it’s time for a drink. In response, other neurons (green) direct additional parts of the brain to compensate by managing internal water levels. In a mouse that’s no longer thirsty, the tree would look almost all green.

This wiring map comes from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is best known for its role in hunger, thirst, and energy balance. Thanks to powerful molecular tools from NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies (BRAIN) Initiative, Yuki Oka of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and his team were able to draw detailed maps of the tree-shaped region, called the median preoptic nucleus (MnPO).

Using a technique called optogenetics, Oka’s team, led by Vineet Augustine, could selectively turn on genes in the MnPO [1]. By doing so, they could control a mouse’s thirst and trace the precise control pathways responsible for drinking or not.

This holiday season, as you gather with loved ones, take a moment to savor the beautiful complexity of biology and the gift of human health. Happy holidays to all of you, and peace and joy into the new year!

Reference:

[1] Hierarchical neural architecture underlying thirst regulation. Augustine V, Gokce SK, Lee S, Wang B, Davidson TJ, Reimann F, Gribble F, Deisseroth K, Lois C, Oka Y. Nature. 2018 Mar 8;555(7695):204-209. 

Links:

Oka Lab, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena

The BRAIN Initiative (NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


BRAIN: Launching America’s Next Moonshot

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A stylized rocket headed toward a moon made of a human brain

Moonshot to the BRAIN

Some have called it America’s next moonshot. Indeed, like the historic effort that culminated with the first moon landing in 1969, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is a bold, ambitious endeavor that will require the energy of thousands of our nation’s most creative minds working together over the long haul.

Our goal? To produce the first dynamic view of the human brain in action, revealing how its roughly 86 billion neurons and its trillions of connections interact in real time. This new view will revolutionize our understanding of how we think, feel, learn, remember, and move, transforming efforts to help the more than 1 billion people worldwide who suffer from autism, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other devastating brain disorders.