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These Fighting Fruit Flies Are Superheroes of Brain Science | Deep Look

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Channel: Deep Look
Categories: Biology   |   Environmental   |   Science  
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POW! BAM! Fruit flies battling like martial arts masters are helping scientists map brain circuits. This research could shed light on human aggression and depression.

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Neuroscientist Eric Hoopfer likes to watch animals fight. But these arent the kind of fights that could get him arrested no roosters or pit bulls are involved.

Hoopfer watches fruit flies.

The tiny insects are the size of a pinhead, with big red eyes and iridescent wings. Youve probably only seen them flying around an overripe piece of fruit.

At the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, Hoopfer places pairs of male fruit flies in tiny glass chambers. When they start fighting, they look like martial arts practitioners: They stand face to face and tip each other over; they lunge, roll around and even toss each other, sumo-wrestler style.

But this isnt about entertainment. Hoopfer is trying to understand how the brain works.

When the aggressive fruit flies at Caltech fight, Hoopfer and his colleagues monitor what parts of their brains the flies are using. The researchers can see clusters of neurons lighting up. In the future, they hope this can help our understanding of conditions that tap into human emotional states, like depression or addiction.

Flies when they fight, they fight at different intensities. And once they start fighting they continue fighting for a while; this state persists. These are all things that are similar to (human) emotional states, said Hoopfer. For example, theres this scale of emotions where you can be a little bit annoyed and that can scale up to being very angry. If somebody cuts you off in traffic you might get angry and that lasts for a little while. So your emotion lasts longer than the initial stimulus.

Circuits in our brains that make us stay mad, for example, could hold the key to developing better treatments for mental illness.

All these neuro-psychiatric disorders, like depression, addiction, schizophrenia, the drugs that we have to treat them, we dont really understand exactly how they are acting at the level of circuits in the brain, said Hoopfer. They help in some cases the symptoms that you want to treat. But they also cause a lot of side effects. So what wed ideally like are drugs that can act on the specific neurons and circuits in the brain that are responsible for depression and for the symptoms of depression that we want to treat, and not ones that control other things.

--- What do fruit flies eat?
In the lab, researchers feed fruit flies yeast and apple juice.

--- How do I get rid of fruit flies in my house?
Fruit flies are attracted to ripe fruit and vegetables.

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