Scientists give flies false memories

October 15, 2009,
Fly
Credit: Jon Sullivan

By directly manipulating the activity of individual neurons, scientists have given flies memories of a bad experience they never really had, according to a report in the October 16th issue of the journal Cell.

"Flies have the ability to learn, but the circuits that instruct were unknown," said Gero Miesenböck of the University of Oxford. "We were able to pin the essential component down to 12 . It's really remarkable resolution." Those dozen cells are sufficient to manage what is a difficult cognitive problem: learning to associate a particular odor with something bad, like an electric shock. In essence, these cells create memories that the fly then uses to avoid that odor.

To pinpoint the exact responsible for this memory among thousands in the fly , the researchers used a clever technique they developed, called optogenetics, in which a simple flash of light is used to release caged-molecules present in selective neurons that then stimulate the activity of those neurons. An analogous situation, says Miesenböck, is if you wanted to send a message only to certain inhabitants of a city, you would give those you wanted to reach a radio tuned to the right frequency and send the message publicly, over the airwaves.

Miesenböck said his team made some educated guesses about the parts of the brain that would be important for the flies' learning task. From there, they were able to narrow it down through experimentation to the 12-neuron brain circuit. Remarkably, stimulating just these neurons gives the flies a memory of an unpleasant event that never occurred.

"We like to take seemingly lofty psychological phenomena and reduce them to mechanics, to see for example how the intelligence needed to adapt to a changing environment can be reduced to physical interactions between cells and molecules," he said. "The question is: how do you get intelligence from parts that are unintelligent?"

Using their approach to "write directly to memory," scientists can now obtain a level of evidence about brain function that was impossible before, Miesenböck emphasized. He notes that neuroscience for a long time depended primarily on recording neural activity and attempting to correlate it to perceptions, actions, and cognition. "It's more powerful to seize control of the relevant brain circuits and produce these states directly," he says.

Miesenböck adds that the simple brain of a fly likely can tell us much about how more complex brains work. "As a general rule, biology tends to be conservative," he said. "It's rare that evolution 'invents' the same process several times." And, he says, even simple organisms may turn out to have a "surprisingly rich mental life."

Source: Cell Press (news : web)

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12 comments

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Birthmark
not rated yet Oct 15, 2009
I wonder what the government will do with this in the future? O.o
Hatmon
2 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2009
I once convinced a fly it had composed the 1812 overture. Unfortunately it couldn't remember exactly how it went, however it did give a fine rendition of Beethoven's 5th by flapping its wings against a taut piece of greaseproof paper.
bredmond
4 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2009
Can they make me remember quantum mechanics without ever studying it? or how about that hot night with a supermodel? Or how about that trip to Mars where i saved the planet from Ronnie Cox with the help of a mutant man with a psychic baby named Quato coming out of his stomach, and I killed my wife played by Sharon Stone, all of which never really happened?
jselin
not rated yet Oct 15, 2009
Can they make me remember quantum mechanics without ever studying it? or how about that hot night with a supermodel? Or how about that trip to Mars where i saved the planet from Ronnie Cox with the help of a mutant man with a psychic baby named Quato coming out of his stomach, and I killed my wife played by Sharon Stone, all of which never really happened?

"I know Kung fu..."
dan42day
5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2009
Try lysergic acid diethylamide, You'll remember all kinds of weird stuff.
Jonathan_Robin
5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2009
Interesting implications for brainwashing far right republican revivalist flies in the ointment
Fakeer
Oct 16, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
ArtflDgr
Oct 16, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
ArtflDgr
1 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2009
Comrade, we have finally figured out how to get the insect world programmed into our collective.

[i posted similar to this earlier, last post like this was cleansed a la 1984. whats the problem communist masters forcing removal to preserve a false history? or is it obamas blogger army cleansing the internet for all?]
ArtflDgr
Oct 16, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
wiserd
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2009

Can they make me remember quantum mechanics without ever studying it?


Not yet. But they can make you dislike quantum mechanics after you have studied it.
tcarnell
5 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2009
Very good, but we knew this would happen right? We haven't learnt MORE about how a brain works, just 'fiddled' with it a bit.

A better question to ask is what constitutes a 'bad odour' to a fly?

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