Hyper-detailed map of a fly's brain reveals which neurons trigger behavior

fruit fly neuron
Razvan Cornel Constantin/123RF
While the eventual goal of artificial intelligence is to develop computers that can exhibit intelligence equal or greater than that of the human brain (quite possibly the latter), there are a few benchmarks we’ll need to achieve first. One of these is to be able to replicate the less complex brains of other creatures inside a computer. Achieving this means first being able to understand exactly how the brains of said creatures work on a cellular level — including how neural circuitry triggers specific behavior.

That’s what researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are helping contribute to with a new project, with the stated goal of creating a brain-wide “atlas” of fruit fly behavior.

“While the fruit fly brain is much simpler than the human brain, it still contains about 100,000 interconnected neurons that combine in complex ways to produce behavior,” project lead Dr. Kristin Branson told Digital Trends. “Our study made use of a few very new technologies. We used recently developed genetic techniques to activate sparse populations of neurons. We also made use of new machine vision and learning algorithms for analyzing the data we collected.”

fruit fly brain map neuron cover1
Robie et al./Cell 2017
Robie et al./Cell 2017

The results the team has achieved are the most in-depth neural map of fruit fly behavior yet. The project involved studying 2,204 populations of flies to find the neurons involved with 14 different behaviors, ranging from wing-flicking to attempted copulation. Were humans to have had to do the project’s “behavior labeling” work instead of machine learning algorithms, the task would apparently have taken 3,800 years. Even in the field of long-term research projects, that’s considered excessive!

“We have mapped the regions of the fly brain that are involved in a variety of locomotion and social behaviors,” Branson continued. “We have done this at the resolution of individual neurons across the entire brain. We hope that the behavior-anatomy maps resulting from our study will enable other biologists to understand the precise computations that the brain performs to produce these behaviors.”

The researcher’s work isn’t just limited to fruit flies, however. “As we start to decipher the ways that the fruit fly brain implements behavior, we hope to find common principles and motifs of neural computation that generalize beyond fruit flies,” she noted. “Understanding circuit computations does involve simulating our models of those circuits in the computer to prove to ourselves that we understand the system, and may enable us to understand why that particular implementation of behavior is advantageous.”

While currently artificial neural networks are only an approximation of how the brain works, hopefully research like what has been conducted by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will help brain-inspired computation advance to the next level. A paper on the research was published in the journal Cell.

Emerging Tech

Only three people have explored the deep oceans. Meet the next two

In a new mission called Five Deeps, a team of explorers will brave the inhospitable depths of the world’s oceans, observing, mapping, and collecting samples along the way. The explorers aim to traverse 40,000 nautical miles over the…
Product Review

Spacious and intuitive, Samsung's Family Hub makes the case for the smart fridge

Samsung's 28-cubic-feet Family Hub fridge aims to not only keep your food cool, but also be the brains of your home via a large computer screen on the outside panel door. Just how smart is it?
Emerging Tech

Scoot your commute! Here are the 9 best electric scooters on the market

Electric scooters are an affordable, convenient way to minimize your carbon footprint and zip around town. Check out 8 of our current favorites, whether you're working with a budget or have some cash to spare.
Emerging Tech

Sick of walking everywhere? Here are the best electric skateboards you can buy

Thanks for Kickstarter and Indiegogo, electric skateboards are carving a bigger niche than you might think. Whether you're into speed, mileage, or something a bit more stylish, here are the best electric skateboards on the market.
Emerging Tech

Hear the sounds of wind on Mars from InSight’s latest audio recording

NASA's InSight craft has captured the sound of the wind blowing on the surface of Mars. The audio file was picked up by the air pressure sensor and the seismometer which detected vibrations from the 10 to 15 mph winds in the area.

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

New experiment casts doubt on claims to have identified dark matter

A South Korean experiment called COSINE-100 has attempted to replicate the claims of dark matter observed by the Italian DAMA/LIBRA experiment, but has failed to replicate the observations.
Emerging Tech

White dwarf star unexpectedly emitting bright ‘supersoft’ X-rays

NASA's Chandra Observatory has discovered a white dwarf star which is emitting supersoft X-rays, calling into question the conventional wisdom about how X-rays are produced by dying stars.

Amazon scouted airport locations for its cashier-free Amazon Go stores

Representatives of Amazon Go checkout-free retail stores connected with officials at Los Angeles and San Jose airports in June to discuss the possibility of cashier-free grab-and-go locations in busy terminals.
Emerging Tech

Full-fledged drone delivery service set to land in remote Canadian community

Some drone delivery operations seem rather crude in their execution, but Drone Delivery Canada is building a comprehensive platform that's aiming to take drone delivery to the next level.
Emerging Tech

It’s no flying car, but the e-scooter had a huge impact on city streets in 2018

Within just a year, electric scooters have fundamentally changed how we navigate cities. From San Francisco to Paris, commuters have a new option that’s more fun than mass transit, easier than a bike, and definitely not a car.
Emerging Tech

Intel wants its fleet of drones to monitor America’s aging, unsafe bridges

Intel has signed a deal to use its Falcon 8+ drones to carry out bridge inspections. The hope is that these drones will be useful in spotting potential problems before they become serious.
Emerging Tech

Transplanted pig hearts show promise in baboon trials. Are humans next?

Researchers in Germany have successfully transplanted modified pig hearts into baboons. The results take us one step closer to ending organ transplant waiting lists for good. Here's why.