Sniffing out a target

High-resolution imaging reveals how neurons involved in processing odors decide which neurons to connect with in the developing brain of fruit flies.

A group of projection neurons in the fruit fly brain direct their dendrites in a clockwise pattern during development, with the first-born neuron (yellow; far left) extending dendrites to the top right part of the antennal lobe and the last-born (white; far right) to the top left. Image credit: Wong et al. (CC BY 4.0)

The brain’s ability to sense, act and remember relies on the intricate network of connections between neurons. Organization of these connections into neural maps is critical for processing sensory information. For instance, different odors are represented by specific neurons in a part of the brain known as the olfactory bulb, allowing animals to distinguish between smells.

Projection neurons in the olfactory bulb have extensions known as dendrites that receive signals from sensory neurons. Scientists have extensively used the olfactory map in adult fruit flies to study brain wiring because of the specific connections between their sensory and projection neurons. This has led to the discovery of similar wiring strategies in mammals. But how the olfactory map is formed during development is not fully understood.

To investigate, Wong et al. built genetic tools to label specific types of olfactory projection neurons during the pupal stage of fruit fly development. This showed that a group of projection neurons directed their dendrites in a clockwise rotation pattern depending on the order in which they were born: the first-born neuron sent dendrites towards the top right of the antennal lobe (the fruit fly equivalent of the olfactory bulb), while the last-born sent dendrites towards the top left.

Wong et al. also carried out high-resolution time-lapse imaging of live brains grown in the laboratory to determine how dendrites make wiring decisions. This revealed that projection neurons send dendrites in all directions, but preferentially stabilize those that extend in the direction which the neurons eventually target. Also, live imaging showed neurons could remove old dendrites (used in the larvae) and build new ones (to be used in the adult) simultaneously, allowing them to quickly create new circuits.

These experiments demonstrate the value of imaging specific types of neurons to understand the mechanisms that assemble neural maps in the developing brain. Further work could use the genetic tools created by Wong et al. to study how wiring decisions are determined in this and other neural maps by specific genes, potentially yielding insights into neurological disorders associated with wiring defects.