We are finding out how the neural networks in the brain evolve by looking at different species.
Our thoughts, memories and behaviours depend upon the correct connections between the 85 billion neurons in our brain, which evolved through trial and error. Other animals display amazingly different behaviours, so how can such an intricate system evolve in so many different ways? Answering this question can provide us with important insights on how brains work and what goes wrong in disease.
Because human brains are so complicated, we are addressing this question by studying the brains of small fruit flies (Drosophila) as a simpler model system, and in particular their sense of smell (known as the olfactory system). Surprisingly, the brain networks controlling our sense of smell and those of flies are incredibly similar, which allow us to draw general principles on how brains evolve from our studies in these insects.
To discover these principles, we use a wide range of scientific techniques to measure the activity of nerve cells in different species of fruit flies and monitor their behaviour in the lab. By investigating the genetic, physical and behavioural differences between these species, we can begin to understand how various aspects of the nervous system have evolved and changed over time.
We are also studying the sense of smell in disease-carrying pests like the tsetse fly. This will allow us to develop more advanced and specific technologies to control them and prevent the spread of the diseases they transmit.
By putting all of this information together we’re starting to reveal the inner secrets of the brain, building a picture of how seemingly simple nerve cell connections can generate incredibly complex and diverse behaviours.