Research

The goal of the lab is to understand the fundamental computations that underlie the neural coding of sensory information, and to figure out how sensory signals are used to guide movement and behavior.

sensory neurons (green) in the fly foot(magenta)

The ability of animals to navigate complex environments depends critically on the integration of proprioceptive information with motor commands. For example, animals (including humans) who lack proprioceptive feedback can generate coarse limb movements, but are unable to execute fine motor tasks.

To understand the neural computations that occur at the interface of proprioception and movement, we study the circuits of the Drosophila ventral nerve cord (VNC), which functions like the vertebrate spinal cord to control the sensation and movement of the limbs. The distinct advantage of the fruit fly as a model system is the existence of genetic tools that allow us to identify and label identified neurons for targeted recordings. We use electrophysiology and optical imaging to measure neural activity, and genetic tools to label and manipulate specific circuit elements in behaving flies. We combine these data with computational modeling of neural circuits and behavior to understand how the fly nervous system senses and controls the body.

Although there are obvious differences between flies and humans, many of the basic building blocks of the nervous system are remarkably similar. These similarities suggest that the principles discovered in circuits of the fruit fly will be highly relevant to sensorimotor processing in other animals.

On proprioception and fruit flies from John Tuthill.

Another project in the lab seeks to understand how the neurons of snow flies (Chionea) are adapted to function under conditions of extreme cold. For more info about our work on snow flies and our citizen science project to help collect them in the mountains of Washington, visit snowflyproject.org