New Buzz: 3-D Map of Fly Brain

Using a reverse-engineering method similar to that of the Blue Brain Project, Jenn-Kang Hwang and her team at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan have engineered a computer-simulated  fruit fly brain with single-cell precision.

The researchers stained (using green-fluorescent protein) and imaged tens of thousands of neurons in the fly brain and used complex gene-marking procedures to find out which cells interacted with one another.

These methods helped them elucidate the architecture of specific networks of cells, and that information allowed for a reconstruction of the pathways of functional brain regions, and ultimately the full structure of the brain.  The authors compare their model of interacting neurons to a city highway system, writing:

Each unit is like a city containing local intersected streets and avenues linked to other cities through multi-lane highways without cross-traffic.  Sometimes, several geographically closed units form a family working together for a specific function requiring intensive information processing.

The researchers also address the age-old brain/computer comparison, pithily stating:

It seems that a fly brain is smarter and more complicated than any computer built thus far.

However, their work by no means represents a full understanding of the workings of the fruit fly brain and the translation of neural network to behavior (that level of understanding is a ways away); rather, it’s a useful visual tool for testing hypotheses about specific neural interactions in the fruit fly brain, and locating neurons of interest.  It’s akin to navigating on a road trip – why use a glove compartment full of small, unconnected state maps when you can use a nice, big road atlas?

The Hwang team has published the results of their brain-mapping project online for free and open access, just like the Human Genome Project did in 2003.  To see the exciting images and videos, go here.


About the author

Sam McDougle

SAM MCDOUGLE is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in Vice and The Atlantic.

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1 Comment

  • That’s pretty amazing that a fly’s brain is still more complex than a computer. I’m looking forward to reading more from this blog.


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