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Lasers Twist Fly Memories

Photonics.com
Oct 2009
OXFORD, England, Oct. 19, 2009 -- Light has been used to manipulate the memories of fruit flies, allowing them to learn from mistakes they never made and scientists to pinpoint the nerve cells that regulate such actions. The work could provide valuable information about how memories are stored in human brains.

The Oxford University research team, funded by the UK Medical Research Council, genetically engineered the fruit flies so that a small set of nerve cells in the brains would "fire" in response to a flash of laser light. This showed which cells are involved in how a fruit fly learns and remembers what to avoid, and offers an exciting new opportunity to investigate how memories are formed.

FruitFly2.jpg
Researchers at Oxford University used lasers to manipulate fruit fly memories, allowing them to learn from mistakes they never made and scientists to pinpoint the nerve cells that regulate such actions. (Istockphoto)

"Remote-controlling these cells and turning them on using light creates an illusion in the brain of the fly that it is experiencing something bad. The fly learns from the “mistake” it never really made and improves its actions the next time,’ said professor Gero Miesenböck of the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University, who led the work.

The Oxford scientists, with colleagues at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, demonstrated that they could use flashes of laser light to train flies to dislike a certain odor.

"We tracked the flies using a video camera as they moved around a small chamber while two different odors were fed into the chamber from either end. We found that we could implant a lasting preference for one odor over the other by remotely activating a specific set of brain cells each time a fly strayed into a particular odor," said Dr. Adam Claridge-Chang, who is now at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University.

Using this method, the researchers were able to pinpoint the precise nerve cells that are responsible for telling the flies that they’ve done wrong, narrowing down the search from the 100,000 cells in the brain of a fruit fly to a set of just 12 neurons.

"Surprisingly, the source of these signals is in a limited number of cells – just twelve," said professor Miesenböck. "These cells send the signals that train the fly to associate the odor with something bad, so wherever their signals go must be the seat of memory. We can now follow this up and start to characterize the process by which memories are formed and organized."

The results of the study are published in the journal Cell. While this work has been done in fruit flies, general lessons about how actions are learned and memories are stored should hold true for humans.

"Biology teaches us that fundamental mechanisms tend to be conserved. Learning about the storage of memories from brain cells in flies should tell us a lot about how they are stored in humans," said Miesenböck.

He has pioneered this method of genetic engineering to remote control the action of specific cells within tissues, or whole organisms like worms, fruit flies, fish and mice, using light from the outside. These efforts have given rise to a new field sometimes called "optogenetics," to indicate that sensitivity to light is encoded genetically.

A separate paper by Miesenböck summarizing the status of this new field has also been published in Science. As the ability to write memories directly to the brains of fruit flies demonstrates, optogenetic techniques have particular power in neuroscience.

"The great advantage is that we are no longer just passive observers of processes in the brain. In the past, neuroscientists had to be content with recording the chatter of brain cells and trying to infer what it all meant. The ability to talk back and influence behavior directly is proving quite valuable," Miesenböck said.

For more information, visit: www.ox.ac.uk
 




GLOSSARY
light
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
optogenetics
A discipline that combines optics and genetics to enable the use of light to stimulate and control cells in living tissue, typically neurons, which have been genetically modified to respond to light. Only the cells that have been modified to include light-sensitive proteins will be under control of the light. The ability to selectively target cells gives researchers precise control. Using light to control the excitation, inhibition and signaling pathways of specific cells or groups of cells...
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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