March 29, 2023

Scientists achieve ‘historic achievement’ to map insect brain

THEBrains are networks of interconnected neurons, and all brains of all species must perform complex behaviors, such as navigating their environment, choosing food, or escaping predators.

Now, a team of scientists has managed to complete the first brain map of an insect, a larval vinegar fly.

For those responsible for this advance, this is a “historic achievement” for neuroscience, bringing scientists closer to “truly understanding” the mechanism of thought, opening the door to the future of brain research and inspiring new learning architectures .

The details of the largest complete brain connection [mapa detalhado de conexões neurais no cérebro] described to date were published in the journal Science, Efe reported.

Responsible for this meticulous research, which lasted 12 years, is a team from Johns Hopkins University (United States) and Cambridge (United Kingdom).

“If we want to understand who we are and how we think, part of it is to understand the mechanism of thought,” emphasized Joshua T. Vogelstein, from Johns Hopkins, for whom the key is to know how neurons are connected to each other.

The first attempt to map a brain—a 14-year study of a roundworm that began in the 1970s—resulted in a partial map and a Nobel Prize.

Since then, some connections have been mapped in many systems, including flies, rodents and even humans, but these reconstructions usually represent only a small fraction of the total brain, explain scientists at the North American university.

Complete connections have been made only by several small species with a few hundred or thousands of neurons: roundworms, larval sea squirts, and larval sea urchins.

“This means that neuroscience has largely operated without circuit maps,” summarizes Marta Zlatic, from the British university.

“Without knowing the structure of a brain, we guess how computations are implemented, but now we can begin to understand mechanically how the brain works,” added the scientist.

Current technology, he points out, is not yet advanced enough to map the connective tissue of higher animals such as large mammals.

However, “all brains are the same—they are networks of interconnected neurons—and all brains in all species must perform many complex behaviors: processing sensory information, learning, choosing actions, navigating their environment, choosing food, recognizing their kin or escape from predators’.

The link of the young vinegar (or fruit) fly – “Drosophila melanogaster” – is the most complete and extensive map of the brain of an insect. It includes 3,016 neurons and all the connections between them: 548,000.

To get a complete picture at the cellular level of a brain, it is necessary to divide it into hundreds or thousands of individual tissue samples, all of which must be analyzed with electron microscopes before the painstaking process of reconstructing the pieces, neuron by neuron, into a complete and accurate portrait of a brain.

The team deliberately chose the vinegar fly larva because, for an insect, the species shares much of its fundamental biology with humans, including a comparable genetic base.

The research took 12 years, with imaging alone taking about a day per neuron.

The scientists classified each neuron based on the function it performs and found, for example, that the most active circuits in the brain were those going to and from neurons in the learning center.

The researchers also developed computer tools to identify possible information flow paths and different types of circuits.

“What we learned about the vinegar fly code will have implications for the human code. That’s what we want to understand: how to write a program that commands a human brain network,” Vogelstein emphasized.

The methods and codes developed in this project are available to anyone who wants to map an even larger animal brain.

A rodent’s brain is estimated to be a million times larger than a fly’s, meaning that the possibility of mapping it is unlikely in the near future, although scientists plan to overcome the limitation, possibly in the next decade.

Also read: German ice cream shop creates new ice cream. Tastes like a cricket (and still carries the bug)

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