News Release

NIH-funded fly study to pinpoint brain’s role in navigation

Grant and Award Announcement

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Robust navigation is both critical for survival and dauntingly complex: Think of the speed and agility of an airborne fly.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Itai Cohen, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, will use the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to study how the brain forms a coherent representation from multisensory information, corrects for errors from perturbations and generates robust behaviors.

The project, supported by a $6.5 million grant from the NIH Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, has potential for insight into human neurological function.

“We are gearing up to understand how the flight integrates sensory modality from the antenna, the eyes and the halteres [balancing organs] in the fly brain,” Cohen said. “The goal is to understand how the fly integrates sensory information when the sensors agree with one another about what is happening and when they are in conflict.”

The researchers will look into whether the flies prioritize some sensors over others, and whether these prioritizations change with environmental conditions, the way a person might navigate by touch rather than sight in the dark.

The fruit fly offers researchers a rich suite of complex behaviors, a full brain connectome (all the neurons and their connections) and powerful genetic and physiological tools, Cohen said.

The timing of this study also takes advantage of recent major advances in the field. The full fly connectome has been mapped and published this year, and a new library of genetically modified flies, in which individual neurons can be turned on and off with light, has been developed. The researchers will be building new state-of-the-art facilities that take advantage of these techniques and combine them with visual, wind and or magnetic perturbations of flies while measuring the resulting wing and body motions.

In addition to Cohen’s lab at Cornell, participating labs are led by: Noah Cowan, Department of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University; Brad Dickerson, Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University; Jessica Fox, Department of Biology at Case Western Reserve University; Sung Soo Kim, Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Marie Suver, Department of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University.

Students and postdoctoral researchers trained through this grant will be able to access facilities in these labs as well.

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