• Reuters

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New research has identified the brain neurons responsible for every behavior that fruit fly larvae exhibit, raising the possibility that neuroscientists may one day construct a similar “atlas” for people.

The accomplishment is an advance toward linking the neurons that fire when people make specific movements, and possibly even when they feel certain emotions, visualize objects, hear particular melodies or think certain thoughts. A human brain atlas of this kind is one goal of the $100 million BRAIN Initiative that U.S. President Barack Obama announced a year ago.

“This study is part of a sea change in neurobiology where we’ll have to deal with vast amounts of data, so it’s encouraging to see what they could do,” said physicist Aravinthan Samuel of Harvard University, who applies computational techniques to the brains of the simplest animals and was not involved in the new research.

In the study, published online by the journal Science, researchers led by biologist Marta Zlatic of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm research center in Virginia first activated a few neurons at a time in the larvae of the fruit fly drosophila, using a technique called optogenetics, in which light causes particular neurons to fire. She and her team then compiled thousands of hours of video recordings of how 37,780 fly larvae behaved in response to each neuronal activation.

Next, using specially developed software to analyze the terabytes of data in the recordings, mathematician Carey Priebe of Johns Hopkins University identified the 29 behaviors the larvae can manage.

The result was an atlas of neurons whose activation causes any movement a fly larva is capable of.

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