Caltech, UC Berkeley to Investigate How Brain Activity Controls Complex Behavior

October 9, 2006

A new $4.4-million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, to develop techniques to turn brain cells on and off in animals as they go about their daily activities, allowing the scientists to understand the details of how brain activity leads to complex behaviors.

According to principal investigator Michael Dickinson, the Zarem Professor of Bioengineering at Caltech, the five-year program is aimed at solving one of the remaining great challenges facing biologists--understanding the mechanistic basis of complex behavior. The work will focus on fruit flies, which are a powerful model system understood extremely well at the genetic level.

"New approaches available in molecular genetics can now be applied to manipulate individual brain cells in an attempt to understand how brains control behavior," says Dickinson. "We'll also use recent advances in engineering to create new devices to observe and measure behavioral changes in a manner as rigorous as those available to detect genetic differences."

The work will involve experiments in which the activity of specific cells in the nervous systems of fruit flies can be controlled using light. "The idea is to bioengineer ion channels that can be opened and closed with light flashes," Dickinson explains. "By controlling these genetically engineered ion channels, we can directly manipulate the electrical impulses that nervous systems use to sense and process information.

"This approach will allow us to study the function of specific cells and circuits in intact animals," Dickinson adds. Coinvestigator Ehud Isacoff of the University of California, Berkeley, will create these ion channels.

A fly might be engineered, for example, to begin flying or walking when pulsed with light of a certain wavelength. But this would be a means to a scientific goal and not the ultimate goal itself.

"This is one way of tapping into the fly and making cells do what we want them to do in order to test specific hypotheses about brain structure and behavior," Dickinson says. David Anderson, a coprincipal investigator and the Sperry Professor of Biology at Caltech, will work to place the light-controlled ion channels within as many unique cells in the flies' nervous systems as possible.

Prior work on the cellular basis of behavior has focused on how networks of brain cells may control simple behaviors such as swimming, flying, and feeding. The new work will probe these behaviors at a deeper level, attempting to figure out how nervous systems-and possibly even individual nervous-system cells-regulate simpler motor actions over time and space to generate more complex behaviors.

A central goal of the research will be to determine how a nervous system uses sensory data to process changes in a complex set of behaviors. Thus, the scientists will not only study the details of how the flies' sensory-based locomotion (walking and flying) works, but how their locomotion is related to crucial survival activities such as looking for food, seeking mates, laying eggs, searching for shelter, and getting out of harm's way.

"We will begin with the assumption that an animal's own natural behavior is the best context in which to interpret how its nervous system is built," Dickinson says. "The first step is to gather quantitative behavioral information concerning the external and internal cues that cause flies to change or modulate what they are doing.

"The next step is to gain experimental access to the specific cells that control these behavioral transitions, so we will develop genetically engineered flies that allow us to control the neurons that send information from the sensory areas of the brain to the circuits that generate and control movement. We will also study how gene expression controls and alters brain wiring.

"Collectively, this may help unravel one of the central questions in neuroscience: how brains regulate behavioral transitions."

Source: Caltech

Explore further: Cellular self-digestion process triggers autoimmune disease

Related Stories

Cellular self-digestion process triggers autoimmune disease

December 13, 2017
Autophagy refers to a fundamental recycling process of cells that occurs in yeast, fungi, plants, as well as animals and humans. This process allows cells to degrade their own components and thus activate energy resources ...

Atoh1, a potential Achilles' heel of Sonic Hedgehog medulloblastoma

December 12, 2017
Medulloblastoma is the most common type of solid brain tumor in children. Current treatments offer limited success and may leave patients with severe neurological side effects, including psychiatric disorders, growth retardation ...

3-D mini brains accelerate research for repairing brain function

December 6, 2017
The Houston Methodist Research Institute is making mini brains from human stem cells that put researchers on a fast track to repair the nervous system after injury or disease of the brain and spinal cord.

Exercise aids recovery from brain injury

November 20, 2017
Exercise is an important part of recovery for people with brain injury, University of Queensland researchers have found.

Glial cells, not neurons, lead the way in brain assembly

December 6, 2017
As the very first neurons come together to form the brain, they need pointers to end up in the right places. Where do these directions come from?

Nerve cell findings may aid understanding of movement disorders

November 29, 2017
The findings relate to a type of cell connection that allows electrical and chemical messages to flow from nerve to muscle cells, enabling motion.

Recommended for you

Tracking effects of a food preservative on the gut microbiome

December 18, 2017
Antimicrobial compounds added to preserve food during storage are believed to be benign and non-toxic to the consumer, but there is "a critical scientific gap in understanding the potential interactions" they may have with ...

Drug found that induces apoptosis in myofibroblasts reducing fibrosis in scleroderma

December 15, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—An international team of researchers has found that the drug navitoclax can induce apoptosis (self-destruction) in myofibroblasts in mice, reducing the spread of fibrosis in scleroderma. In their paper ...

How defeating THOR could bring a hammer down on cancer

December 14, 2017
It turns out Thor, the Norse god of thunder and the Marvel superhero, has special powers when it comes to cancer too.

Researchers track muscle stem cell dynamics in response to injury and aging

December 14, 2017
A new study led by researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) describes the biology behind why muscle stem cells respond differently to aging or injury. The findings, published in Cell Stem Cell, ...

'Human chronobiome' study informs timing of drug delivery, precision medicine approaches

December 13, 2017
Symptoms and efficacy of medications—and indeed, many aspects of the human body itself—vary by time of day. Physicians tell patients to take their statins at bedtime because the related liver enzymes are more active during ...

Study confirms link between the number of older brothers and increased odds of being homosexual

December 12, 2017
Groundbreaking research led by a team from Brock University has further confirmed that sexual orientation for men is likely determined in the womb.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.