The Brain Cells That Guide Animals

It may seem absurd to compare a tiny fruit fly’s brain to that of a majestic elephant. Yet it is the dream of many neuroscientists to find deep rules that very different brains share. As Gilles Laurent, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, who has studied a variety of animals, from locusts to turtles, has said, “Neural responses can be described by the same mathematical operation … in completely different systems.” Vivek Jayaraman, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, and a former student of Laurent’s, believes that neuroscientists are on the verge of identifying some of these deep neural rules. Grasping them would advance another neuroscientific dream: to be able to predict animal behavior as easily as Newton could predict the behavior of a moving object.

Jayaraman and a small have, in fact, already experienced the thrill of discovering one such rule. It governs something essential—the ability of an animal to keep track of where it’s headed. What’s more, recent experiments on flies hooked up to virtual-reality environments— from Jayaraman’s group and from Rachel Wilson (a former postdoc of Laurent’s) and colleagues at Harvard—show how a fruit fly’s visual cues ensure the stability of its heading. The findings offer insight into how mammals, like us, might build maps of their world.

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