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Progress Toward Understanding Visual-Motor Transformation in the Brain

11/18/2010

Progress Toward Understanding Visual-Motor Transformation in the Brain

11/18/2010

Investigator: Dr. Michael Dickinson
Institution: University of Washington
Project Title: "Progress Toward Understanding Visual-Motor Transformation in the Brain”
Award Amount: $2 million (2010)

Fossil evidence indicates that vision is almost certainly the first sense that enabled animals to negotiate the physical world. Once eyes were sophisticated enough to detect objects in the environment, a core function of the visual circuitry was to determine where something is, what something is, and how to respond. Allen Distinguished Investigator Michael Dickinson and his team at the University of Washington is developing technology that helps answer the question, "How is visual information transformed into behavioral action?" The research represents a deep investigation of the where/what/how problem in fruit flies (Drosophila).

The project has developed a controllable fly-sized robot (Flyatar) that makes it possible to quantify how walking flies react to other flies approaching them from different directions and under different behavioral contexts. A new version of the system (Flyatar Lite) is also being used to study how a male fly can distinguish different parts of the female (such as the head versus the abdomen) as he chases her. With these steps, the project can develop a system for controlling the activation of specific populations of neurons in intact, walking flies and a technique that will make it possible to manipulate cells in the fly's brain as it performs visual-motor behaviors.

In another component of the project, the researchers have developed and implemented a real-time tracking system and graphics engine to present visual and chemical stimuli to free-flying flies within a wind tunnel and to analyze landing behavior. It has also developed a 3-D high-speed video tracking arena that permits the detailed measurement of motor reactions to visual stimuli.

Thus, in its initial stages, the project has made significant progress in developing new techniques for combining molecular genetics with quantitative ethomics in fruit flies. Ethomics is a new biological discipline that brings together the research fields of ethology and genomics. The long term goals of the project are not only to elucidate the circuitry flies use to navigate through their world, but also to identify general principles used by all nervous systems to transform sensory information into cohesive motor commands.