Nov. 8 - Scientists in the US are planning to map the brain activity of the dragonfly as it hunts, using a specially built backpack to transmit electrical signals from the insect's active neurons to a computer. The researchers believe that, if successful, their experiments could shed light on how the human brain functions and how individual neurons interact. Rob Muir reports.
At rest, the dragonfly is a picture of energy conservation. But when a potential meal flies past, it launches into action calculating with lightning speed where it has to be to intercept its prey. Neuroscientist Anthony Leonardo wants to know how the dragonfly does it - what neurons in its brain fire to turn stimulus into action. SOUNDBITE (English) ANTHONY LEONARDO, NEUROSCIENTIST, HOWARD HUGHES MEDICAL INSTITUTE, JANELIA FARM CAMPUS, SAYING: "We are interested in how the brain solves problems and one very common problem that dragonflies, and amphibians and people experience all the time is catching a moving object, you know, so something's moving through the air and you're in one location and it's in another location and to get it, you have to do two things at once. You have to predict where it's going to be in the future and you have to find a way to navigate your body along that interception course." Leonardo is preparing to record the electrical activity in the dragonfly's brain as it hunts. He's already established that a dragonfly can carry a miniaturized backback equipped with electrodes with minimal impact on its natural movement. He's also showed that when connected to the insect's brain, the electrodes can transmit recordable data from the neurons when they fire. Now, at the Janelia Farm campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute near Washington DC, he's preparing the next experiment. In a room fitted with cameras and designed to replicate their natural habitat, he'll soon begin releasing dragonflies fitted with the backbacks. With plentiful live prey available to hunt, he hopes that the electrodes connected to the dragonflies' brains will send back data about which individual neurons are firing, and when. Instrument and systems designer Jason Osborne also has high hopes for the technology. He helped design it. SOUNDBITE (English) JASON OSBORNE, INSTRUMENT AND SYSTEMS DESIGNER, HOWARD HUGHES MEDICAL INSTITUTE, JANELIA FARM CAMPUS, SAYING: "Yeah there's a lot of trial and error, there's a lot of fails but, nevertheless, you're trying to do something that no one has done before so the inventing process and the trouble shooting and the R and D is just mind-blowing." And if they can map the mind of a dragonfly, Leonardo says what they learn could be applied to understanding how the human brain works. SOUNDBITE (English) ANTHONY LEONARDO, NEUROSCIENTIST, HOWARD HUGHES MEDICAL INSTITUTE, JANELIA FARM CAMPUS, SAYING: "If you really want to help people in terms of malfunctioning brains or disease and other things, I mean one way to do it, the standard way we do it is with molecular tools and therapeutic things but really, if you go to your car mechanic he understands how the parts work, how they fit together and how they interact, and that's what we're trying to do here and build up an understanding of how the parts work." Leonardo says it'll be a slow process..but he's confident the humble dragonfly will eventually reveal exactly what's on it's mind.