According to a new report in the Journal of Neuroscience, fruit flies may be a higher order species than we may have thought.
A crucial function of the brain is to be able to distinguish whether or not changes in the environment are caused by one’s own actions. Even the smallest brains appear to be capable of making this distinction, as has been shown by closed-loop behavioral experiments in flies controlling visual stimuli in virtual reality paradigms.
Scientists at the University of Queensland tested this theory by crafting a virtual reality game for the little buggers. According to Tech Times:
This virtual reality “video game” was very simple, consisting of a dark bar that the fruit flies could control with their own movements. The researchers compared the flies’ brain activity while they were controlling the bar’s movement with their brain activity while they were presented with the same virtual reality scenario, but had no control over the bar’s movement.
The increase in brain communication between brain regions that the researchers observed while the flies were controlling the video game suggests that they were devoting brain power to calculating their next move.
Medical Xpress shared an interview with Associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen, who explained how this VR game helped researchers make this determination:
“We found that when the fly is in control there is an increase in communication between brain regions, compared to when they are just responding to the very same visual stimuli replayed to them,” he said. Dr van Swinderen said it was known from human research that different parts of the brain needed to work together for attention and perception to occur effectively.
“Looking at only one part of the brain at a time may be less revealing about attention, because the whole brain is likely to be involved,” he said. “It’s really interesting that humans and flies share the ability to focus and have attention.
“The difference is that we have around 100 billion neurons, and they only have 100,000 to do pretty much the same – focus on one thing at a time and select the best course of action.” The experiments showed that each fly is an individual with its own strengths, weaknesses and preferences.
“There were actually some star performers that immediately understood whether they were in control or not, and some never seemed to know the difference,” Associate Professor van Swinderen said.
“Across our research, there is always individuality between all of the animals. Tthey all behave differently.”
So the next time your little cousin punks you in Madden ’15 or runs circles around you in Minecraft, just remember that we’re all a little like fruit flies.