OXFORD, England, Oct. 19, 2009 -- Light has been used to manipulate the memories of fruit flies, allowing them to learn from mistakes they never made and scientists to pinpoint the nerve cells that regulate such actions. The work could provide valuable information about how memories are stored in human brains.
The Oxford University research team, funded by the UK Medical Research Council, genetically engineered the fruit flies so that a small set of nerve cells in the brains would "fire" in response to a flash of laser light. This showed which cells are involved in how a fruit fly learns and remembers what to avoid, and offers an exciting new opportunity to investigate how memories are formed.
牛津大学的研究员使用激光来控制果蝇的记忆，使它们可以从那些它们本来没有犯过的错误中学到（经验）。同时，激光还允许科学家准确的定位神经元来调节这种控制活动。Researchers at Oxford University used lasers to manipulate fruit fly memories, allowing them to learn from mistakes they never made and scientists to pinpoint the nerve cells that regulate such actions. (Istockphoto)
"Remote-controlling these cells and turning them on using light creates an illusion in the brain of the fly that it is experiencing something bad. The fly learns from the “mistake” it never really made and improves its actions the next time,’ said professor Gero Miesenböck of the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University, who led the work.
The Oxford scientists, with colleagues at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, demonstrated that they could use flashes of laser light to train flies to dislike a certain odor.
"We tracked the flies using a video camera as they moved around a small chamber while two different odors were fed into the chamber from either end. We found that we could implant a lasting preference for one odor over the other by remotely activating a specific set of brain cells each time a fly strayed into a particular odor," said Dr. Adam Claridge-Chang, who is now at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University.
Using this method, the researchers were able to pinpoint the precise nerve cells that are responsible for telling the flies that they’ve done wrong, narrowing down the search from the 100,000 cells in the brain of a fruit fly to a set of just 12 neurons.
"Surprisingly, the source of these signals is in a limited number of cells – just twelve," said professor Miesenböck. "These cells send the signals that train the fly to associate the odor with something bad, so wherever their signals go must be the seat of memory. We can now follow this up and start to characterize the process by which memories are formed and organized."
The results of the study are published in the journal Cell. While this work has been done in fruit flies, general lessons about how actions are learned and memories are stored should hold true for humans.
"Biology teaches us that fundamental mechanisms tend to be conserved. Learning about the storage of memories from brain cells in flies should tell us a lot about how they are stored in humans," said Miesenböck.
He has pioneered this method of genetic engineering to remote control the action of specific cells within tissues, or whole organisms like worms, fruit flies, fish and mice, using light from the outside. These efforts have given rise to a new field sometimes called "optogenetics," to indicate that sensitivity to light is encoded genetically.
A separate paper by Miesenböck summarizing the status of this new field has also been published in Science. As the ability to write memories directly to the brains of fruit flies demonstrates, optogenetic techniques have particular power in neuroscience.
"The great advantage is that we are no longer just passive observers of processes in the brain. In the past, neuroscientists had to be content with recording the chatter of brain cells and trying to infer what it all meant. The ability to talk back and influence behavior directly is proving quite valuable," Miesenböck said.