It turns out that flies really get turned on by lasers, literally. It’s one of the side effects from what researchers have named the “Fly Mind-Altering Device.” Barry Dickson, neuroscientist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute is responsible for this matchmaking skill; however, it’s all in the name of neuroscience and not for the sake of the fly’s love life.
A team of researchers in thermogenetics have created an experiment that involves pointing the laser at the fly’s head, a fly that has had its brain altered with heat-activated proteins, allowing the laser to fire specific neurons, the ones responsible for mating.
When the researchers turn on the device it caused one fly to suddenly mate with the closest object it could find. The fly began its courtship by circling the object and making its wings vibrate. In this case the object was a ball of wax. A similar experiment was used in an attempt to control mice by using light, called optogenetics. However, this would not work on a fly since light cannot penetrate their exoskeletons. Besides, a fly’s head is also way too small to accommodate the cables they had to install in the mouse’s brain.
The researchers discovered that certain strains of flies with heat-sensitive protein could be heated up by a laser. In one experiment they used a camera to track a fly in a box while keeping an inactive laser trained on it. Whenever the researchers turn on the laser the fly would instantly begin its courting ritual. Even after researchers turned the laser the fly remained turned on for fifteen minutes continuing to court the ball of wax.
The research team also did another experiment with the heat-sensitive protein and the flies. They found that when you hit these flies with infrared light it made them walk backwards, however, this time they stopped the minute the bombardment was over.
Apparently, this technique makes experimenting with genetically modified files not only faster but much simpler as well. The researchers would like to continue the experiment with the trying to control the minds of flies. They would like to find out what happens when two neurons with opposite effects are activated at the same time. An example would be to activate a neuron that makes the fly go forward while activating the one that makes it go backwards at the same time.
The researchers claim that this type of experiment could not only help us understand but also map the neurons that govern our own brains. The human brain is still a fairly large mystery to us and the field of neuroscience is doing its best to find us the answers to our own minds.
The “Fly Mind-Altering Device” may help us make great leaps and bounds in the world of neuroscience. It has the possibility to unlock many secrets about how our minds work and what makes us experience the world around us. It may seem silly that the flies are turned on by the laser; however, we must look deeper and realize that it’s an important step in the right direction of mapping neurons.
By Adam Stier