Tiny insect brains capable of huge feats

Jun 11, 2010
A male hoverfly, Eristalis, attempting to woo a female (feeding from the flower) with his impressively controlled hovering flight. The flies use visual motion to stabilize and control their flight and to maintain their distance from nearby objects. Credit: Photo by Doekele Stavenga

Insects may have tiny brains the size of a pinhead, but the latest research from the University of Adelaide shows just how clever they really are.

For the first time, researchers from the University's Discipline of Physiology have worked out how insects judge the speed of moving objects.

It appears that insect cells have additional mechanisms which can calculate how to make a controlled landing on a flower or reach a food source. This ability only works in a natural setting.

In a paper published in the international journal , lead author David O'Carroll says insects have well identified brain cells dedicated to analysing , which are very similar to humans.

"It was previously not understood how a tiny insect brain could use multiple brain pathways to judge motion," Associate Professor O'Carroll says.

"We have known for many years that they can estimate the direction of moving objects but until now we have not known how they judge speed like other animals, including humans.

"It appears they take into account different light patterns in nature, such as a foggy morning or a sunny day, and their adapt accordingly.

"This mechanism in their brain enables them to distinguish moving objects in a wide variety of natural settings. It also highlights the fact that single neurons can exhibit extremely complex behaviour."

Assoc. Prof. O'Carroll co-authored the paper with Paul Barnett, a Physiology PhD student at the University of Adelaide, and Dr Karin Nördstrom, a former Physiology Postdoctoral Fellow at Adelaide who is now based at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Their specific research is focused on how the brain makes sense of the world viewed by the eye, using the insect visual system as an important model.

" are ideal for our research because their visual system accounts for as much as 30% of their mass, far more than most other animals," Assoc. Prof. O'Carroll says.

His team is collaborating with industry to develop artificial eyes in robots, mimicking human and insect vision.

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gmurphy
5 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2010
This article doesn't explain anything, only refers to mysterious 'mechanisms' in the 3rd paragraph. What it does suggest is that single neurons are capable of complex behaviour which directly contradicts much of the neural models we have today.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Jun 11, 2010
gmurphy:

Think about it, a nueron has several axons and dendrites, which means it must be capable of relatively complex "switching" and "decisions" in and of itself, else it'd send the wrong signal to the wrong neighbouring neuron.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Jun 11, 2010
@Quantum_Conundrum,

Neurons have only 1 axon, not several. The axon usually branches, reaching many other neurons. But all of those other neurons will be receiving the same spike(s).

The "switching" and "decisions" are made in the dendrite tree (where inputs from multiple afferent axons are integrated), as well as the cell body (soma) of the neuron. These are driven by the nature of afferent neurotransmitters (some of which are inhibitory, while others are excitatory) and the 'strength' of the various synapses, but also depends on various ambient neuromodulators (many of which are secreted by other neighboring neurons or glial cells, and others are carried in from blood or lymph or the cerebrospinal fluid.)
maxcypher
not rated yet Jun 11, 2010
If one tries to visualize all the degrees of freedom that QC explicates upon, then it is easy to see that a tremendous amount of complex computing is required by each neuron.

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