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Leaders from Biology Endowed Lecture: Mapping the neural circuits that control precision timing in behavior

Brad Dickerson
Princeton University | Assistant Professor, Princeton Neuroscience Institute
Seminar date:
Monday, April 25, 2022 - 12:00 to 13:00

Timing is crucial to the nervous system; the ability to rapidly detect and process subtle disturbances in the environment determines whether an animal can attain its next meal or successfully navigate complex, unpredictable terrain. Previous work on a number of animals has made tremendous strides uncovering the specialized neural circuits used to resolve timing differences with nano- to microsecond resolution1.However, this work focused on the detection of timing differences in sensory systems, while our understanding of how the timing of motor output is structured by precise sensory input remains poor2.My research aims to close this gap by focusing on a system that pushes the bounds of organismal performance, flight control in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Flies perform steering maneuvers in less time than it takes us to blink3, in part by using specialized mechanosensory organs known as the halteres. These tiny, club-shaped structures are evolved from the hindwings and beat during flight, regulating the timing and activation of the wing steering system with sub-millisecond precision4. Additionally, halteres serve as gyroscopic sensors by detecting body rotations5. Understanding how this relatively simple insect is capable of performing the impressive aerial feats we observe in the natural world demands an integrative approach that combines physics, muscle mechanics, neuroscience, and behavior. My lab studies the flight behavior of the fruit fly, combining the powerful genetic tools available for labeling and manipulating neural circuits with cutting-edge imaging in awake, behaving animals. We believe this work will not only fundamentally reshape our understanding the evolution of insect flight but will also highlight the tremendous importance of timing in the context of locomotion.

Fields of interest: