Scientists in Australia have discovered a way to measure the attention span of a fly, which could lead to futher advances in understanding autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in humans.
An Australian-German team of scientists at Freie Universität and the Queensland Brain Institute in Brisbane, Australia found genetic mutations that increase or decrease the attention span of a fly.
Using genetic techniques, brain recordings and behavioral testing on the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, Queensland associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen and Freie Universität neuroscientist Björn Brembs found that a fly’s level of distractibility is finely tuned to allow “normal” behavioral responses to a constantly changing environment.
“We now have the two ends of an attention spectrum in our model,” van Swinderen said in a statement. “We have a fly memory mutant that is hard to distract and another fly memory mutant that’s too distractible. They both have the same result — they don’t learn well but for completely different reasons, not unlike human patients afflicted with autism and ADHD.”
The scientists fed the fruit flies methylphenidate — better known as Ritalin — which is used to treat ADHD patients. They found that the drug had a similar effect on the fruit flies, suggesting that there could be similar brain pathways in flies and humans.
“These surprising parallels between insects and humans may point to a general, common functional organization of brains,” Brembs said in a statement.
Their research is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.