A fly on the wall

Researcher uses insect models to study sensory processing

As a neuroscientist with an established interest in entomology, Assistant Professor of Biology Jessica Fox wields a distinctive approach to research. Her laboratory’s current work involves using insect flight as a model for how sensory systems process information, which holds broader implications for human health and engineering.

By investigating how mechanical and visual sensory systems interact to direct insect flight, Fox hopes to gain an understanding of sensory processing as a whole, which can then be translated into real-world applications.

“We don’t have a machine that can fly through the air, avoid obstacles, track odors and vision at the same time and then land upside down on the ceiling,” said Fox. “If we can understand how flies can do that, then that lets us build some interesting new machines or sensors for machines that will let them do that.”

According to Fox, flies, which move at high speeds in three dimensions, serve as ideal genetic model organisms. Flies breed quickly, exhibit interesting behaviors and have few neurons that are easily accessible.

These qualities make the creatures perfect subjects for Fox’s research, in which she utilizes two main techniques to study flies.

The first technique is a more traditional one, using electrodes in flies’ brains to measure how they process information and how their neurons communicate. The second approach involves observing the insects’ general behavior and changing the given stimulus in complicated, quantitative ways to better understand the insects’ responses. Manipulating the various stimuli can lead to a better understanding of how the nervous system operates without close examination of individual neural networks.

“Flies are great animals … they’re little robots,” Fox said. “If you get an interesting response from a fly, chances are good that the next three flies will do the same thing.”

These similar responses make for good behavior data, which paves the way for further investigation. Fox’s plans for the future include compiling more recordings of the flies’ brains to understand how their brain cells incorporate mechanical and visual sensory information.

The research project will be funded for the next three years by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through the Air Force Young Investigator Program, meaning that one of Fox’s initial hurdles—securing funding for her research—has been overcome.

“I think that the value of basic research is a really important one, even if there’s not an immediate practical application,” said Fox. “And I think, when budgets are tight, we tend to fund things that are going to have an immediate practical application and I think we should go in the opposite direction.”

According to Fox, funding basic research will potentially lead to more fruitful discoveries that can be used in more practical ways to develop targeted therapies and tools, especially in regard to human health.

“Instead of looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease—which is an important thing to do, and we should be doing that—it’s also important to understand how healthy neurons function, because, if we don’t understand how that works, then it’s very difficult for us to cure Alzheimer’s disease,” said Fox

Fox says there is a general need for more information about the nervous system and how it functions, in addition to a need for more tools that can be used to access the nervous system. Her current research can aid in this quest for discovery, particularly in better understanding how interplay between sensory data influences behavior.

Fox believes there is much to learn from animals and how they perceive the world, which can hold significant implications for how human problems are targeted.

“There are animals that can detect magnetic fields,” said Fox. “There are animals that can see ultraviolet light. There’s just a whole world out there that we don’t experience and animals can tell us about it. And they can tell us a lot about how our own brains are functioning.”