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Memory, motivation and neural transposition

Rewarding (green) and motivating (blue) dopamine neurons both innervate the fly mushroom bodies (grey). Wolf Huetteroth
Rewarding (green) and motivating (blue) dopamine neurons both innervate the fly mushroom bodies (grey).

Directed behaviour emerges from neural integration of sensory stimuli, memory of prior experience and internal states. The Waddell group seeks an understanding of these conserved neural mechanisms using genetically-encoded tools and the relatively small brain of Drosophila. By temporally controlling neural function memories can be implanted and internal states altered so that most flies behave according to our direction. Such recent studies have revealed a role for distinct subsets of dopaminergic neurons that innervate the mushroom bodies in reward learning and the control of motivated fly behaviour. Therefore, the positive reinforcement system of flies is more similar to that of mammals than previously envisaged.

One might interpret the relative ease of altering behaviour to indicate that everything is simple in the fly brain. However, complexity may arise in unexpected ways. Cell-type specific gene expression profiling revealed transposable element expression in long-term memory relevant neurons of the mushroom body. Importantly, neural transposon mobilization is prevalent and likely to be heterogeneous within and between fly brains. Since neural expression and retrotransposition of LINE-1 transposable elements has been observed in mammals, it appears that genomic heterogeneity is a conserved feature of the brain. We are particularly interested in the implied cell-type biased nature of neural transposition and whether the stochasticity of transposition could contribute to cellular and organismal individuality.

We are part of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour along with the groups of Gero Miesenböck, Martin Booth, Stephen Goodwin, Korneel Hens and Tim Vogels.

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