Vision may be less important to "seeing" than is the brain's ability to process points of light into complex images, according to a new study of the fruit fly visual system currently published in the online journal Nature Communications.
University of Virginia researchers have found that the very simple eyes of fruit fly larvae, with only 24 total photoreceptors (the human eye contains more than 125 million), provide just enough light or visual input to allow the animal's relatively large brain to assemble that input into images.
"It blows open how we think about vision," said Barry Condron, a neurobiologist in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, who oversaw the study. "This tells us that visual input may not be as important to sight as the brain working behind it. In this case, the brain apparently is able to compensate for the minimal visual input."
Condron's graduate students, Elizabeth Daubert, Nick Macedonia and Catherine Hamilton, conducted a series of experiments to test the vision of fruit fly larvae after they noticed an interesting behavior of the animals during a different study of the nervous system. They found that when a larva was tethered to the bottom of a petri dish, other larvae were attracted to it as it wiggled attempting to free itself.
The animals apparently saw the writhing motion and were attracted to it, willingly traveling toward it. After several further experiments to understand how they sensed the motion, the researchers learned that the nearly blind animals likely were seeing the action, by wagging their heads side-to-side in a scanning motion to detect it, rather than by only hearing it or feeling vibration or by smelling the trapped larva. This was a surprise because of the very simple and limited vision of fruit fly larvae.
"The answer must be in the large, somewhat sophisticated brain of these animals," Condron said. "They are able to take just a couple dozen points of light and then process that into
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University of Virginia