Feast your eyes on the world’s most detailed image of a fruit fly brain

The common fruit flies has never been as interesting as it is now, thanks to work coming out of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland. Using a technique known as high-speed electron microscopy, scientists there have carried out the most detailed fruit fly brain imaging in history — and the results are both impressive and pretty darn fascinating.

The experimental neurobiologists’ work involved taking 21 million nanoscale-resolution images of the brain of a fruit fly in order to record all 100,000 nerve cells that it contains. The rainbow-colored images produced don’t just look pretty, but also lay the groundwork for future research that will establish exactly which neurons talk to one another in the fly’s brain. With plenty left to discover about how brains work, this could turn out to be revolutionary.

“At 100,000 neurons, the fruit fly’s brain is the biggest that has been imaged at this resolution to date,” Davi Bock, a neurobiologist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, told Digital Trends. “We can now trace the neuronal connections making up any circuit of interest in the fly’s brain. These ‘wiring diagrams’ can then be complemented by very powerful genetic tools providing molecular, physiological, and functional data about the neurons in the circuit.”

fruit fly brain scan glass hover with pns v3 cropped
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

As Bock notes, being able to analyze a brain with this level of completeness and high resolution can reveal new insights. For example, the team is particularly interested in the neurons which help create memories. By looking at the neurons which send messages to a part of the brain called the mushroom body, which aids with learning and memory, the researchers discovered a whole new type of neuron that plays a role in this area. They theorize that these cells could help to integrate various types of sensory information.

Such discoveries may ultimately teach us more about human brains, too. “Over and over again, principles discovered in the fruit fly have been found to hold true in a wide range of organisms, including humans,” Bock continued. “This is likely to be true of brain circuits as well.”

Next up, Bock said that the team hopes to apply “emerging automated segmentation algorithms” which can help accelerate tracing these brain circuits. They will also continue to explore the functions associated with the mushroom body.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Cell.

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