Public Release: 

Brain asymmetry improves processing of sensory information

University College London

Fish that have symmetric brains show defects in processing information about sights and smells, according to the results of a new study into how asymmetry in the brain affects processing of sensory information.

It's widely believed that the left and right sides of the brain have slightly different roles in cognition and in regulating behaviour. However, scientists don't know whether these asymmetries actually matter for the efficient functioning of the brain.

Now, a team from UCL and KU Leuven, Belgium has shown that, in zebrafish at least, loss of brain asymmetry can have significant consequences on sensory processing, raising the possibility that defects in the development of brain functions on either the left or right on the brain could cause cognitive dysfunction. The study is published today in Current Biology.

Professor Steve Wilson, senior author of the study from the UCL Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, said: "We don't know whether asymmetries actually matter for the efficient functioning of the brain. For instance, if your brain was symmetric, would it work any less well than it normally does?

"This is potentially an important issue as brain-imaging studies in various neurological conditions have shown alterations in normally asymmetric patterns of neuronal activity." In their study the team used two-photon high resolution microscopy to image the activity of individual neurons in a part of the brain called the habenulae in larval zebrafish. This region of the brain shows asymmetries in many different vertebrates and is involved in mediating addiction, fear and reward pathways and probably influences numerous behaviour patterns.

In zebrafish habenulae most neurons responding to a light stimulus are on the left whereas most responding to odour are on the right. Using this knowledge to their advantage, scientists bred fish in which habenular asymmetry was reversed and fish with double-right and double-left sided habenulae. They then asked how the habenular neurons responded to visual or olfactory stimuli in these different conditions.

They found that if the direction of brain asymmetry was reversed, the functional properties of the habenular neurons were also reversed, whereas double-left and double-right sided brains almost completely lacked habenular responsiveness to odour or light respectively.

Dr Elena Dreosti, first author of the study, also from UCL Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, said: "These results show that loss of brain asymmetry can have significant consequences upon sensory processing and circuit function".

The research raises the possibility that defects in the establishment of brain lateralization could indeed be causative of cognitive or other symptoms of brain dysfunction.


Notes for Editors

1. For more information or to speak to Professor Steve Wilson or Dr Elena Dreosti, please contact Clare Ryan in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3846, mobile: +44 (0)7747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail:

2. 'Left-Right Asymmetry Is Required for the Habenulae to Respond to Both Visual and Olfactory Stimuli' is published in the February 17, 2014 issue of Current Biology and online today.

3. Copies of the paper and images are available from UCL Media Relations

About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine.

We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by our performance in a range of international rankings and tables. According to the Thomson Scientific Citation Index, UCL is the second most highly cited European university and the 15th most highly cited in the world.

UCL has nearly 27,000 students from 150 countries and more than 9,000 employees, of whom one third are from outside the UK. The university is based in Bloomsbury in the heart of London, but also has two international campuses - UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. Our annual income is more than £800 million. | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel

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