A map of the 3,016 neurons that make up a baby Drosophila’s brain is the first of its kind, according to a new study.
The researchers say the map of the insect’s brain is the largest ever made and shows each neuron – or messenger cell – in the organ and how they are wired together.
Experts say it could bring them closer to understanding the mechanism of thought and behavior and has been described as a “big step forward”.
The project was led by Professor Marta Zlatic and Professor Albert Cardona, from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, based at the University of Cambridge.
“The way the brain circuitry is structured influences the calculations the brain can make,” Professor Zlatic said. “But, so far, we have not seen the structure of any brain except the roundworm C. elegans, the tadpole of a chordate and the larva of a marine annelid, which have all several hundred neurons.
“This means that neuroscience mostly works without circuit boards.
“Without knowing the structure of a brain, we guess how calculations are implemented.
“But now we can begin to gain a mechanistic understanding of how the brain works.”
The work took the researchers 12 years, with the imaging alone taking about a day per neuron.
The research, which was published in the journal Science, was a joint project with experts from the University of Cambridge and Johns Hopkins University in the US, combining to complete the largest brain connectome ever described – a map detail of neural connections in the brain. .
In order to build a picture of the fruit fly’s neural connections, the researchers had to scan thousands of slices of the larva’s brain before painstakingly reconstructing them to complete the map.
Then they could start meticulously annotating the connections between neurons on the reconstructed image.
“This is a big step forward in answering key questions about how the brain works,” said Jo Latimer, head of neuroscience and mental health at the Medical Research Council.
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Current technology is not advanced enough to map the connectome of more complex animals such as large mammals, but this breakthrough could start to change that.
In addition to mapping the 3,016 neurons, the researchers mapped an incredible 548,000 synapses – the contact points between neurons where information is passed between them.