Reconstructing the brain of fruit flies

A map of the central region of the fruit fly brain, showing all neurons and their connections, is now freely available online.

613 neurons from one portion of the fruit fly’s brain, with artificial colors assigned to each neuron to make them easier to follow in the dense tangle of connections. Image credit: The FlyEM team, Janelia Research Campus, HHMI (CC BY 4.0)

Animal brains of all sizes, from the smallest to the largest, work in broadly similar ways. Studying the brain of any one animal in depth can thus reveal the general principles behind the workings of all brains. The fruit fly Drosophila is a popular choice for such research. With about 100,000 neurons – compared to some 86 billion in humans – the fly brain is small enough to study at the level of individual cells. But it nevertheless supports a range of complex behaviors, including navigation, courtship and learning.

Thanks to decades of research, scientists now have a good understanding of which parts of the fruit fly brain support particular behaviors. But exactly how they do this is often unclear. This is because previous studies showing the connections between cells only covered small areas of the brain. This is like trying to understand a novel when all you can see is a few isolated paragraphs.

To solve this problem, Scheffer, Xu, Januszewski, Lu, Takemura, Hayworth, Huang, Shinomiya et al. prepared the first complete map of the entire central region of the fruit fly brain. The central brain consists of approximately 25,000 neurons and around 20 million connections. To prepare the map – or connectome – the brain was cut into very thin 8nm slices and photographed with an electron microscope. A three-dimensional map of the neurons and connections in the brain was then reconstructed from these images using machine learning algorithms. Finally, Scheffer et al. used the new connectome to obtain further insights into the circuits that support specific fruit fly behaviors.

The central brain connectome is freely available online for anyone to access. When used in combination with existing methods, the map will make it easier to understand how the fly brain works, and how and why it can fail to work correctly. Many of these findings will likely apply to larger brains, including our own. In the long run, studying the fly connectome may therefore lead to a better understanding of the human brain and its disorders. Performing a similar analysis on the brain of a small mammal, by scaling up the methods here, will be a likely next step along this path.