"There were actually some star performers that immediately understood whether they were in control or not, and some never seemed to know the difference," says Bruno van Swinderen. (Credit: John Tann/Flickr)

attention

Some fruit flies are surprisingly self-aware

When scientists placed tethered fruit flies in front of a digital display, on an air-supported ball, while recording multiple parts of their brain simultaneously, they were surprised to find some were more self-aware than others.

In the virtual reality scenario, the flies (Drosophila melanogaster) could control either the position of a visual stimulus (a dark bar) or were shown replayed movies of the stimulus they were not able to control.

“We found that when the fly is in control there is an increase in communication between brain regions, compared to when they are just responding to the very same visual stimuli replayed to them,” says Bruno van Swinderen, associate professor of cognitive and brain neuroscience at the University of Queensland.

Flies are individuals

It is known from research with people that different parts of the brain need to work together for attention and perception to occur effectively.

Each fly is an individual with its own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.

“Looking at only one part of the brain at a time may be less revealing about attention, because the whole brain is likely to be involved. It’s really interesting that humans and flies share the ability to focus and have attention.

“The difference is that we have around 100 billion neurons, and they only have 100,000 to do pretty much the same—focus on one thing at a time and select the best course of action.”

The experiments show that each fly is an individual with its own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.

Star performers

“There were actually some star performers that immediately understood whether they were in control or not, and some never seemed to know the difference,” van Swinderen says.

“Across our research, there is always individuality between all of the animals. They all behave differently.”

The research shows that to understand how attention works, scientists might need to look at how different brain regions interact, rather than only looking at one brain region at a time.

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The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, has important implications on how to study attention in animal models, says Leonie Kirszenblat, a PhD student who performed the work with postdoctoral researchers Angelique Paulk and Yanqiong Zhou.

“Traditionally, in animal models such as Drosophila, the tendency among researchers has been to try to find single brain regions responsible for different functions.

“However, we now know that to best understand how animals attend to and respond to their environment, we need to devise methods allowing us to manipulate and observe multiple brain regions simultaneously. This is now possible in Drosophila, but still hard to do in many other animals.”

Source: University of Queensland

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