You think brain surgery is hard? Try it on a fruit fly.

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fruit flyIt takes a steady hand to perform microsurgery on the head of a fruitfully. But it turns out that neuroscientists may no longer have to perform this arduous task. In recent years, neuroscientists have begun to design and build robotic systems that allow them to perform high-throughput brain imaging experiments involving model organisms such as Drosophila in real time. “Brains in Action,” a recent article in The Scientist reviews advances in this field.

As the article points out, there are ways to use fluorescence markers to see when certain neurons are activated, but using those techniques to identify and monitor distinct neural circuits in living organisms can be difficult, to say the least. Automation may change all that. Researchers are developing high-throughput techniques to track neural activity in awake, and sometimes freely moving, animals.

“Worm-tracking” technology is being developed at the Janelia Farm Research Campus and other institutions that automatically keeps freely crawling Caenorhabditis elegans worms in view while quantifying their behavioral responses such as change in movement, direction, and velocity.

Researchers at Portugal’s Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme are using high-resolution imaging with modern optical techniques to visualize the entire brains of living larval zebra fish and investigate the organization and functions of the neural circuits that underlie their visually guided behaviors. This same technology can be used to illuminate the small Drosophila brain and monitor its activity in intact and awake organisms while they move their arms and legs in response to different stimuli.

In mammalian brain research, scientists at MIT are automating the common—but extremely difficult—process of whole-cell patch clamping. Such an advance could help scale-up brain research by making the process easier and more consistent across individual organisms.

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