Does it seem to be a far stretch to study brain impulses using headless flies? Centuries ago, Marshall Hall (1790 – 1857) studied the motor behavior of decapitated animals, and phrase, “Like a chicken with it’s head chopped off” is in common colloquial use!

His research is very precise and has significant implications for studying human behavior – by working with fruit flies – yes!

In one experiment, done at Yale, he and his team engineered fruit flies to be light-sensitive in the neural area responsible for escape response. Then the flies were beheaded; fruit flies can live for a day without their heads, but they don’t move. When the modified cells were flashed with light, though, the headless flies flew. Miesenboeck had successfully simulated an order from a brain that wasn’t even there anymore.

Who is he:

Miesenboeck’s current research at Oxford’s growing department of neurobiology focuses on the nerve cell networks that underpin what animals perceive, remember and do. In one recent experiment, he used optogenetics to implant an unpleasant memory in a fruit fly, causing it to “remember” to avoid a certain odor as it traveled around. He and his team were able, in fact, to find the fly’s specific 12-neuron brain circuit that govern memory formation.

Why should you listen

Using light and a little genetic engineering — optogenetics — Gero Miesenboeck has developed a way to control how living nerve cells work, and advanced understanding of how the brain controls behavior.

Gero Miesenboeck is pioneering the field of optogenetics: genetically modifying nerve cells to respond to light. By flashing light at a modified neuron in a living nervous system, Miesenboeck and his collaborators can mimic a brain impulse — and then study what happens next. Optogenetics will allow ever more precise experiments on living brains, allowing us to gather better evidence on how electrical impulses on tissue translate into actual behavior and thoughts.

Discussion questions

  1. Even though many neuroscientists say, “If we could record the activity of our neurons,we would understand the brain” , Gero believes that this statement is both flawed and simplistic. Discuss the evidence he presents.
  2. Describe the research of Susana Lima. Are there any potential ethical problems?
  3. Discuss the role of The Actor and The Critic as applied to behavioral choices.
  4. In your wildest imagination, write out a scenario that involves heroic behavior in headless flies.
  5. Do some research in the area of “artificial intelligence”, write a report and share it with someone.
  6. What can we learn from Mary Shelley’s book (Frankenstein) when it comes to brain research and experimentation?

Re-engineering the brain with Gero Miesenboeck


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