News / Health

Fruit Flies Could Unlock Mystery of Alzheimer's

Scientists look to insects for answers on how human brain forms and retains memories

The common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is one of the most commonly used research animals.
The common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is one of the most commonly used research animals.

Multimedia

Audio

At Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, scientists are working to find clues about how the human brain processes memories. Their laboratory test animal is not a chimp or a dog or a rat — animals that we know can remember things it is the common fruit fly.

"They're relatively simple," Ron Davis says, explaining why the fruit fly's brain has some ideal properties for human brain research. "The brain of the fruit fly has about 100,000 neurons. The brain of a human has about 100 billion neurons, and that's an enormous network of interconnected neurons in the human brain, if one thinks about it. We literally can't wrap our brains around the human brain yet."

Fruit fly training regimen


Davis chairs the Department of Neuroscience at Scripps Florida. He's designed an experiment in which fruit flies are trained to remember an odor associated with an unpleasant electrical shock.

Dr. Ron Davis says fruit flies have essentially the same genes as humans do, just fewer of them.
Dr. Ron Davis says fruit flies have essentially the same genes as humans do, just fewer of them.

It involves a series of Plexiglas tubes which have an electrifiable copper grid on their surfaces. "One puts the fly in these tubes first, passes an odor through the tube," Davis says. "Odor A shocks the animal, mild electric shock." After fresh air has been blown through the tubes to remove any trace of the first odor, a second scent is pumped in.

"Odor B passes through the tube and the animals are not shocked. That's the training where we're hoping the animals will develop an association. They'll learn that one odor is bad because it's been punished in the presence of that odor. And the other odor is okay."

Click to Listen:

Download/Play Audio File


Then, the flies are tested to see how well they remember which odor is which. Davis says about 90 percent do, and avoid the electric shock. The ones that don't are isolated, so their genes can be studied.

The human-fruit fly connection

Researchers can remove a fly's brain and place it — still functioning — under a microscope. They can isolate neurons that have different functions and watch them fire -or send signals- to other neurons when stimulated.

A research associate at Davis' lab prepares the series of tubes for the flies' olfactory memory training.
A research associate at Davis' lab prepares the series of tubes for the flies' olfactory memory training.

Once they identify which neurons are firing differently in the normal flies that have learned to identify the difference, they examine the mutants that don't remember the shocking odor to see how genes control the firing process.

Fruit flies have essentially the same genes as we do, just fewer of them. Davis says that correlation is what makes his research so promising.

"If we find a gene in flies that's important for a process like memory formation, that sequence of that gene is generally conserved [across species]. We can use that gene to identify a similar gene in a mouse or in humans, because they have a very, very high sequence similarity. The bases that make up the gene are very similar." He explains that is how researchers are able to identify with a very high probability in humans the vast majority of genes that exist in fruit flies.

"We're actually quite similar to a fruit fly, believe it or not," he adds with a laugh.

Each vial in the storeroom can hold more than 150 flies.
Each vial in the storeroom can hold more than 150 flies.

Generations of flies in one room

Fruit flies have a very short lifespan compared to other laboratory animals like the mouse or rat. So, with the flies mating and reproducing every two weeks, many generations of flies can be studied in a year, allowing researchers to do genetic studies quickly. And since the flies are small, hundreds of thousands of them can be stored easily and inexpensively in plastic vials.

Davis shows off a small room at the Institute, filled with vials of fruit flies — all to be used in the search for answers to how our memories are made and stored.

"If one examines the vast majority of neurological diseases — Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and so forth, and psychiatric diseases — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism, all of these have a commonality in that they have learning disorders, in general, or memory formation seems to be an underlying feature of the vast majority of neurological and psychiatric diseases."

Davis and his team of researchers hope their work will lead to a drug that will help the brain fight learning- and memory-related diseases. He says gaining a fundamental understanding of how the learning process works could be the key to treating — and perhaps curing — them.

You May Like

Unpaid Kurdish Fighters Sign of Economic Woes

Sharp cuts in Kurdistan's budget by Baghdad, falling oil revenue, coping with refugees, inflated public sector have hit regional economy hard More

Koreas Exchange List of Envoys for Family Reunion Talks

Officials will discuss date, venue and number of participants for reunion; Seoul hopes to hold event late this month More

China Targets 197 in Online Speech Crackdown

Nearly 200 punished for 'spreading rumors' online in ongoing crackdown on free speech More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 02, 2015 6:19 PM
Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.

VOA Blogs