Combining Virtual Reality and Genetics to Understand the Fruit Fly Brain, Andrew Straw
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A fundamental question in neuroscience is how simultaneous, distributed activity across the nervous system orchestrates animal-environment interaction to produce adaptive behavior. The visual system of the fly has been intensively studied for six decades from computational, behavioral, physiological, developmental, genetic, and optical perspectives and is perhaps the best understood system of any brain. Despite this wealth of knowledge, our understanding of the behavioral capabilities of flies, and consequently how this well-studied part of the nervous system is involved in these tasks, remains rudimentary. To address this limitation, I and my colleagues have developed a realtime computer vision system for tracking freely flying flies. Combined with a virtual reality system built on computer games technology, we are using this automated system to ask how the fly perceives its world and structures its movement through it. In this talk, I will describe a recent study using this apparatus in which we discovered that fruit flies use nearby horizontal edges for regulating their altitude. We are now extending this system to investigate high level visual behavior in flies. Furthermore, by utilizing modern molecular genetic techniques, we can inactivate small sets of neurons in the fly brain, and by correlating these manipulations with behavioral deficits measured using the VR system, we can establish a correspondence between particular brain circuits and their role in behavior.