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Language of a fly proves surprising
Date:3/7/2008

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico, March 10, 2008A group of researchers has developed a novel way to view the world through the eyes of a common fly and partially decode the insects reactions to changes in the world around it. The research fundamentally alters earlier beliefs about how neural networks function and could provide the basis for intelligent computers that mimic biological processes.

In an article published in the Public Library of Science Computational Biology Journal, Los Alamos physicist Ilya Nemenman joins Geoffrey Lewen, William Bialek and Rob de Ruyter van Steveninck of the Hun School of Princeton, Princeton University and Indiana University, respectively, in describing the research.

The team used tiny electrodes to tap into motion-sensitive neurons in the visual system of a common blowfly. Neurons are nerve cells that emit tiny electric spikes when stimulated. The electrodes detected pulses from the motion-sensitive neurons in the fly. The fly uses the neurons to estimate, and subsequently control, how it moves through the world.

The team harnessed the wired fly into an elaborate turntable-like mechanism that mimics the kind of acrobatic flight a fly might undergo while evading a predator or chasing another fly. The mechanism can spin extremely fast and change velocities quickly. A fly in the mechanism sees changes in the world around it and its motion-sensitive neurons react much in the same way as they would if the insect were actually flying.

Under complex flight scenarios, the flys neurons fired very quickly. The researchers looked at the firing patterns and mapped them with a binary code of ones and zeroes, much like computer instructions, or binary messages in digital phone communications.

The team found that the impulses were like a primitive, but very regular languagewith the neuron firing at precise times depending on what the flys visual sensors were trying to tell the rest of the fly about the visu
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Contact: James E. Rickman
jamesr@lanl.gov
505-665-9203
DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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