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Biotech Science

Scientists Write Memories Directly Into Fly Brains 137

Posted by Soulskill
from the hellllllp-me dept.
TheClockworkSoul writes "Researchers at the University of Oxford have devised a way to write memories onto the brains of flies, revealing which brain cells are involved in making bad memories. The researchers said that in flies, just 12 brain cells were responsible for what is known as 'associative learning.' They modified these neurons by adding receptors for ATP, so that the cells activate in the presence of the chemical, but since ATP isn't usually found floating around a fly's brain, the flies generally behave just like any other fly. Most interestingly, however, is that the scientists then injected ATP into the flies' brains, in a form that was locked inside a light-sensitive chemical cage. When they shined a laser on the fly brains, the ATP was released, and the 'associative learning' cells were activated. The laser flash was paired with an odor, effectively giving the fly a memory of a bad experience with the odor that it never actually had, such that it then avoided the odor in later experiments. The researchers describe their findings in the journal Cell."
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Scientists Write Memories Directly Into Fly Brains

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  • Bad odor (Score:5, Funny)

    by Tibia1 (1615959) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:15PM (#29775153)
    The scientists later discovered that even fly's without this injected memory avoided the odor. One man was quoted saying "It smelled pretty bad."
    • Re:Bad odor (Score:5, Insightful)

      by dov_0 (1438253) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:24PM (#29775187)
      If only they could program them to avoid the smell of BBQ meat...
      • by Brad1138 (590148)
        No problem, just catch all the flies around your yard, take them to the lab, wait a few weeks, then bring them back home and release them. You can now feel safe that they won't bother you while your BBQing.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The scientists later discovered that even fly's without this injected memory avoided the odor. One man was quoted saying "It smelled pretty bad."

      Still later, scientists discovered that flies would avoid odors they associated with having lasers shined through their heads, regardless of cellular modifications.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Kratisto (1080113)
        Much later, scientists discovered that the flies were detecting the odor of burning brain tissue, and not the odor they intended to implant as memory.
        • by ari_j (90255)
          Later still, scientists discovered that all of these experiments with flies were actually memories implanted into the scientists' brains by their evil fly overlords.
  • by greyhueofdoubt (1159527) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:15PM (#29775157) Homepage Journal

    Wouldn't having a laser pointed at your brain in the presence of an odor kind of count as a 'bad experience'?

    I'm not sure how you create a control group for an experiment like this- shine the laser in the absence of odors so the fly is terrified of clean places? Isn't that how most flies act already?

    -b

    • by TheClockworkSoul (1635769) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:20PM (#29775177) Homepage
      Well, just a thought, but wouldn't one such possible control be shining the laser on flies without ATP receptors?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by HeLLFiRe1151 (743468)
      I was think perhaps associating the laser with an odor that the fly normally likes would provide a more accurate approach. What do I know though, I'm couldn't even pass for a geek let alone a scientist.
      • by rhathar (1247530)
        And yet you had better ideas than the ones everyone else posted. Bravo.
        • by joeme1 (959209)

          There are nice guys on here. I was thinking about his spelling mistakes, but you were thinking about his beneficial contribution to the group. Bravo.

      • by EdIII (1114411) *

        I was actually thinking that since we are talking about flies and odors, that it would be a bad idea to fart in the lab. It might mess around with the results. Some scientists messing around with the results more than others.

    • by Hatta (162192) *

      You can do the experiment on nontransgenic flies, or use a dummy chemical in the photocage etc. That would prove that you're actually seeing an effect due to the experimental manipulation. But I think it's hard to argue that this is creating a memory of a bad experience the fly never had. I think they are changing an innocuous experience into a bad experience the fly actually had.

    • Even if this was a joke. The scientists did enough tests and rounds to isolate the cells necessary down to 12. They say they may reduce that number further. I really bot think controls is an issue.
  • by dov_0 (1438253) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:16PM (#29775159)
    In my day we just ripped their wings off. This new stuff is REALLY sick...
  • NPR Science Friday (Score:5, Informative)

    by Snowblindeye (1085701) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:27PM (#29775193)
    NPR's Science Friday had an interview with the one of the scientists this morning. You can listen to the segment here: http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/200910161 [sciencefriday.com]
    • Amazing interview, the interviewer was a bit blah, it wasn't his field (the field has existed a bit under 3years). But the researcher really took off explaining everything quite well including the experiment. WELL worth the listen.
  • This kind of surgery smells of butchery. Can't wait for upgrade patches.
    http://xkcd.org/644/

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      In the novel (not the movie)Hannibal, Lecter considers using psychotherapy/hypnosis/drugs to transfer his sister's memories into Clarice.

      Also, Clarice and Hannibal elope and flee the country and they also fuck. But you won't see that ending in the movie ;)
  • by Tubal-Cain (1289912) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:33PM (#29775229) Journal
    Are we sure it was a new memory they created? Because we can't just interview the flies about what they were thinking, how do we know the smell conjured up a fake memory rather than, say, just a strong feeling of unease?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:39PM (#29775255)

      As you might guess, the article title and summary are incorrect. The scientists *didn't* write a memory into the fly's brain, they exposed it to something to memorize (the smell) and then artificially triggered the store-this-as-bad circuitry. Which is still cool and interesting and all that.

      • by node 3 (115640) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @07:50AM (#29776859)

        As you might guess, the article title and summary are incorrect. The scientists *didn't* write a memory into the fly's brain, they exposed it to something to memorize (the smell) and then artificially triggered the store-this-as-bad circuitry. Which is still cool and interesting and all that.

        No, the article and summary are rather correct.

        The fly's actual *experience* is of a smell that they didn't think was all that bad, but later, when they encountered the smell again, they remembered it as being something bad.

        It's like if you ate some normal food, but a mad scientist tricked your brain into adding the "I didn't like this" flag to it while you were eating it. At the time, your emotion was a pleasantly eating some food, but later, when you encounter the food again, you feel repulsed by it, remembering it from before as being notably unpleasant.

        • They set the evil bit.

          Damn.
        • by ari_j (90255)
          A mad scientist or a Burgertown employee with curly hair.
        • by JThundley (631154)

          It's like if you ate some normal food, but a mad scientist tricked your brain into adding the "I didn't like this" flag to it while you were eating it. At the time, your emotion was a pleasantly eating some food, but later, when you encounter the food again, you feel repulsed by it, remembering it from before as being notably unpleasant.

          Sounds like my experience with a bottle of Southern Comfort.

    • Well, the fly DID come back thinking it was a secret agent on Mars...

    • by Krneki (1192201)
      Do you offer as a volunteer as human subject?
        Think about it, you could get some real good porn memories.
  • by mhwombat (1616301) on Friday October 16, 2009 @09:50PM (#29775305)

    Doesn't having your "this is a bad experience" receptors activated count as a bad experience? I don't mean the whole brain-and-laser unpleasantness, I mean having negative-association cells firing in your brain at all. It might not just count as a bad association later, it might be pretty unpleasant now. In which case it's not a fake memory, it's a real memory.

    For flies maybe this question has no meaning... maybe flies aren't conscious. If they did this to a higher animal (I have a horrible suspicion they will) it would be a question to ask. But a good question for this experiment would be: when they fire those brain cells, do the flies try to avoid what's going on immediately?

    • by Atryn (528846)

      But a good question for this experiment would be: when they fire those brain cells, do the flies try to avoid what's going on immediately?

      Yeah like if the fly ALSO happened to be taking a crap at the moment the laser was fired, would they now forever find that unpleasant too? Or just the idea of being locked in a cage with several other flies? Hmmm...

    • by Toonol (1057698)
      I think it's a case of shifting definitions. What you and I normally mean by 'memories' is not necessarily the definition that the scientists involved are working with. For practical reasons, they are reworking the definition to fit what they can manipulate and measure. That's fine, as far as it goes, as long as no confusion results by mixing two disciplines that each mean slightly different things with the term 'memory'. Psychology, for instance. Some organisms without any neurons have 'memories', but
    • by node 3 (115640)

      Doesn't having your "this is a bad experience" receptors activated count as a bad experience?

      Possibly, but this sounds more like the following:

      You pet a kitten, then the mother cat runs out and attacks you. Your petting of the kitten wasn't traumatic. In fact, you rather enjoyed it. But the mother cat attack added the "this is dangerous" flag to your memory of petting the kitten. Later, when you see another kitten, you will be cautious about petting it, even if you think you'd enjoy it.

      With the flies, they did not experience the event as having disliked the smell at the time, but when they recall t

    • Doing it to other brain cells had 0 effect. The fact that they narrowed it down to 12 brain-cells that were responsible should be telling.

      Higher animals may experience some level of dissonance though since we don't AS easily accept things. I think it is likely it would work on many parts of us though. Colouring memories of people and such.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Help me!
  • I've got a list of beautiful women I'd like to remember, if you know what I mean...

    Jewel Staite
    Summer Glu
    Laura Harris

    • by bsDaemon (87307)
      Summer Glau really isn't that attractive... she reminds me of a sickly Christina Ricci.
  • Otherwise the inevitable "writing to memory in the browser" hype will amount to flyshit.
  • Obligatory (Score:5, Funny)

    by GameMaster (148118) on Friday October 16, 2009 @10:04PM (#29775353)

    WHOA, I know Kung-Fu!

  • We already know we can implant false memories into humans and now a method for creating false bad memories in flies by command? Things are looking good. I just want a way to model this as a system instead of just being able to target groups of cells. Full neural systems would be awesome!
  • by adageable (972913) on Friday October 16, 2009 @10:32PM (#29775443)
    Hmm... let's see here..
    Bad odor.... Check.
    Laser beam directed INTO the brain.... uh... Check.
    "Bad memories" induced.... err... Check.


    And in other news... sugar tastes good.
  • This must be how THEY implant false memories about alien abduction into people's mind:

    The aliens are all false memories, the probing isn't.

    • by Jesus_666 (702802)
      I wasn't aware that the colon is the most direct way to access the brain. Then again, maybe if you use a really powerful laser...
      • by KillerBob (217953)

        I wasn't aware that the colon is the most direct way to access the brain. Then again, maybe if you use a really powerful laser...

        Maybe they only do their probes on conservatives, or on people who are genetically predisposed to going into politics. Their brains are much closer to that point of entry....

  • "Memories! You're talking about memories!"
  • the flies used 'atp-get'
  • Plagiarism (Score:3, Funny)

    by Norsefire (1494323) * on Friday October 16, 2009 @11:34PM (#29775663) Journal
    They stole this idea from Joss Whedon.
  • A fly was given a faked bad memory associated with an odour. How screwed up is that when flies like shit.
  • ....its probably a terrorist fly, Lets torture it some more.
  • can I have one of these with USB?
  • Finally, evidence for those who have held off purchasing their tin-foil hats.

  • When they shined a laser on the fly brains, the ATP was released, and the 'associative learning' cells were activated. The laser flash was paired with an odor, effectively giving the fly a memory of a bad experience with the odor that it never actually had, such that it then avoided the odor in later experiments.

    People who don't know how brains learn, might believe the "that it never actually had" part.

    But if you know anything about that, you will know that what they did, was the same thing as what we call "learning": Associating something with something else.
    In this case they just provided the "bad feeling" part of the association, while the odor was in place. Causing the fly to learn that the odor causes that bad feeling.
    The same thing as if someone would always kick you in the balls when you see a pretty lady. (

  • will this work on my girlfriend, LOL yes honey I did remember your birthday, dont you remember I got you that ring...you must have lost it
  • It is "memory" after all, ad Rambus thinks everyone should pay them.

  • by Chysn (898420)
    ...write an unpleasant experience with an odor? Okay, I know it's just a stupid fly, but why not write a nice, pleasant experience with an odor that usually doesn't attract flies? They only live for a few hours, why fill their heads with bad things that didn't really happen?

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