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Laser creates 'false memories' in fly brains - life - 15 October 2009 - New Scientist

A flash of laser light can alter the brains of fruit flies so that they learn to fear pain that they never actually felt.

Gero Miesenböck at the University of Oxford and his colleagues genetically engineered fruit flies so that a handful of their nerve cells fired when lit up with a laser.

This allowed them to write false pain "memories" into the fruit flies' brains. "These memories cause a lasting modification of the flies' behaviour," says Miesenböck.

It is known that the release of dopamine by neurons in the "mushroom body" – part of the fruit fly brain – is critical to learning. But it was not known whether behaviour can be conditioned by stimulating these neurons directly, without the fly having any real experience.

Lessons in pain

To investigate, Miesenböck and his colleagues started by putting ordinary fruit flies into a small chamber while two different odours were pumped in from either end to create two separate odour streams.

The researchers delivered an electric shock each time a fly strayed into a particular odour stream, which taught the flies to prefer the other one: the flies learned to move in the direction of the shock-related odour 30 per cent less often.

Once he had shown that the flies had learned to avoid pain, Miesenböck decided to see if similar conditioning could be created by stimulating neurons without actually hurting the flies.

Bright ideas

His team started by genetically engineering a second set of fruit flies so that their dopamine-producing brain cells manufactured a membrane protein called P2X2. When P2X2 binds to a molecule called ATP, the neuron that produced it fires as if zapped by an electric shock.

The team then made these P2X2 neurons light-sensitive by injecting the flies with a form of ATP that is activated only by a laser. By injecting the light-sensitive ATP into different neurons in different flies, they were able to produce flies with different combinations of light-sensitive neurons.

The researchers then put these genetically modified flies into the smell chamber. This time, when the flies strayed into a particular odour stream, the researchers flashed them with a laser beam instead of zapping them with an electric shock as they had with the normal flies.

Many of the flies did not react. But flies that had 12 particular light-sensitive neurons chose to move in the direction of the laser-related odour 28 per cent less of the time – almost exactly the same result as in the unmodified flies that were exposed to electric shocks.

Miesenböck concludes that stimulating dopamine release in these 12 neurons has the same effect as applying electric shocks to flies. In other words, these flies feared that smell as if they had been conditioned to associate an electric shock with it. "Stimulating just these neurons gives the flies a memory of an unpleasant event that never happened," he says.

Like fly, like human?

He says that it is likely that humans form memories in a similar way. "I would be surprised if the way humans learn from mistakes turned out to be fundamentally different from the way flies learn from mistakes."

"The scientists have identified a discrete population of nerve cells that are seemingly the source of 'memory'," adds Richard Baines, a neuroscientist based at the University of Manchester, UK. "This represents a further demonstration of the power of using organisms like the fruit fly for understanding how the human brain works."

However, Wayne Sossin, who studies the biochemical pathways of memory formation at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – part of McGill University, Canada – points out that it will be difficult to show that human memories work in the same way. "It would be unethical to engineer transgenic humans and tell them what memories to have," he says.

He also says that there may be other ways to form memories, apart from stimulating dopamine-producing neurons. "This is an inherently very neat experiment, but further research is needed in some areas," he says. "They showed that activation of a small subset of neurons is sufficient to cause learning, but they didn't show that these neurons are actually activated during normal learning."

He thinks that Miesenböck's team should also have looked at long-term memories, which may form via separate biochemical pathways.

The next step is to identify the "upstream" cells that control the activity of these 12 neurons, says Miesenböck. He says this will "point like a finger" to the sites where the flies' memories are physically stored.

Journal references: Neuron, vol 33, p 15; Cell, DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2009.08.034

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Have your say
Comments 1 | 2 | 3


Thu Oct 15 18:42:22 BST 2009 by Asakari

I can see this being used on the general population, using a combination of colors and lights to control the public opinion. I need my tinfoil hat.


Sun Oct 18 00:03:18 BST 2009 by Dennis

Well it's already being done to a degree. Casinos make use of mood elevating colors to make people happier even when they're losing. The color mood idea is heavily debated and it's arguable on whether it works or not.

Is It Just Me Or. . .

Thu Oct 15 23:10:42 BST 2009 by Jamie

... are there an alarming number of technological advances being developed in the last couple of years that could prove very useful for the wrong type of governments?

I wonder what pushes mankind to create this kind of device. There would be a very interesting study in that.

Is It Just Me Or. . .

Fri Oct 16 05:24:50 BST 2009 by Morgan

I don't think so, Jamie. I think this sort of thing is actually done for better self-understanding. Understanding, for instance, the subjective nature of memory allows us to better understand all of the instances where memory works highly-subjectively - such as when we fill in details based on our schemas or when we can't remember things because we lacked a narrative to do so. These kinds of self-insights allow us to understand our highly-subjective nature and come up with a better picture so that we might work with it and around it for our social benefit.


Thu Oct 15 23:29:34 BST 2009 by Leon

So let me get this straight. Rather than electrocuting the fluit fly directly they are triggering the nerves that cause pain. The fly can't tell the difference between that and an electric shock so they are still learning; through pain!

What a wonderful experiement, lets see if rubbing on a raw nerve hurts things. Hmm, yes it does, okay lets see if rubbing on a different set of raw nerves hurts things. Drat we've ran out of raw nerves to play with, lets genetically engineer some fruit flies to have extra pain nerves that we can stimulate. My gosh these sceintists must dress in leather.

So I'm guessing, and I'm going out on a limb here, they plan to help humans learn valuable lessons by triggering raw nerves; who's up for a little direct pain to the brain while being gassed?

This experiment is to primitive to actually lead anywhere, they may imply all they like that eventually they will be able to use this laser lesson to teach and communicate directly with the mind that doesn't make it so. I can directly communicate with your mind through jabbing you with a pencil this is the same thing. There is no deeper level of skill involved.


Thu Oct 15 23:50:56 BST 2009 by Jones

Yea i bet P.E.T.A. will be all over theese experiments too.


Thu Oct 15 23:53:46 BST 2009 by patterntangle

I thought the same thing. They're not creating false memories at all.


Fri Oct 16 04:26:25 BST 2009 by Tara

My take on the article is that the flies don't actually feel any pain when they get hit by the laser beam, they remember it.

When you remember an old injury you don't feel that original pain but you do learn to avoid it happening again.

It would be extremely useful to be able to learn from painful mistakes without feeling any discomfort.


Sat Oct 17 17:21:49 BST 2009 by Axon

There is no pain to remember. Memory in insects does not rely on pain. You analogy in this instance in not useful to explain insect behaviour.


Sat Oct 17 17:33:55 BST 2009 by Axon

They did not engineer flies to have extra pain nerves. They did not have pain nerves to begin with. The response to the electrical stimulation can be described without pain receptors.

Insects have some memory capacity, but they do not learn. We can condition them to stimuli. This experiment used genetic engineering to highlight some cells that may be involved in behavioural conditioning in flies. Nothing more. And there was no need to invoke pain to describe the behaviour

Comments 1 | 2 | 3

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Black NFL players crush prospect of playing for a Rush Limbaugh-owned St. Louis Rams

Black NFL players crush prospect of playing for a Rush Limbaugh-owned St. Louis Rams

BY Ohm Youngmisuk

Updated Friday, October 9th 2009, 8:59 AM

If Rush Limbaugh buys the Rams, the NFL's black players say they won't meet him in St. Louis.
If Rush Limbaugh buys the Rams, the NFL's black players say they won't meet him in St. Louis.

Mathias Kiwanuka loves his former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, but the Giants' defensive end says he will never play for Spagnuolo's Rams if Rush Limbaugh purchases the team.

Kiwanuka and the Jets' Bart Scott made it clear Thursday that they would never play for the Rams or any team owned by the controversial conservative radio host.

"All I know is from the last comment I heard, he said in (President) Obama's America, white kids are getting beat up on the bus while black kids are chanting 'right on,'" Kiwanuka told The Daily News. "I mean, I don't want anything to do with a team that he has any part of. He can do whatever he wants, it is a free country. But if it goes through, I can tell you where I am not going to play."

"I am not going to draw a conclusion from a person off of one comment, but when it is time after time after time and there's a consistent pattern of disrespect and just a complete misunderstanding of an entire culture that I am a part of, I can't respect him as a man."

Limbaugh said on Tuesday that he is joining former Knicks president and Madison Square Garden CEO Dave Checketts in a group bidding to purchase the Rams. Checketts, who owns the NHL's St. Louis Blues, is heading the group, reportedly one of many bidders. The potential sale is still in an early stage. If the Rams are sold, St. Louis will choose one bidding group, which will then be subject to a vote by the NFL's 32 owners, with approval needed by 24 of them.

Limbaugh's controversial comments are well-known. He resigned from ESPN in 2003 after he said the media were "very desirous that a black quarterback do well" in reference to Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb being overrated. "If he's rewarded to buy them, congratulations to him," McNabb said during his weekly press conference. "But I won't be in St. Louis anytime soon."

Scott says players remember what Limbaugh said, and adds that the NFL would be wise not to allow the nationally syndicated host into the league. "It's an oxymoron that he criticized Donovan McNabb," Scott said. "A lot of us took it as more of a racial-type thing. I can only imagine how his players would feel. I know I wouldn't want to play for him. He's a jerk. He's an ---. What he said (about McNabb) was inappropriate and insensitive, totally off-base. He could offer me whatever he wanted, I wouldn't play for him. ... I wouldn't play for Rush Limbaugh. My principles are greater and I can't be bought."

Limbaugh, who grew up in Missouri about 100 miles south of St. Louis, is an avid sports fan who once said that "the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons."

Kiwanuka cringes at the idea of Limbaugh becoming an NFL owner. "They are flat-out racist," Kiwanuka said of many of Limbaugh's statements. "He jumps on Obama and he jumps on other people for being racist. But a lot of the comments that he said, I feel like they have no place in journalism. It is just an opinion show that should be only be taken for shock value. I liken it to 'South Park' when I am listening to him."

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