Although the brain contains the essence of what makes us human, we still know very little about the complex processes going on inside of it – we don’t even notice much of the work the brain does for us on a daily basis. One of the reasons why I decided to study biology was because of my fascination with this organ and its secrets. A good approach towards understanding complex processes and systems is to start with less complex systems, try to understand those, and then extrapolate the findings to try and grasp general principles.
Drosophila has proven to be a great model system for understanding brains. Flies have a numerically less complex nervous system than vertebrates but are still capable of producing a broad spectrum of adaptive behavior. Furthermore, Drosophila is an easy-to-handle genetically tractable lab animal which greatly facilitates our research. With the help of this model system, we can dive in and understand a little bit more about what I find to be one of the most fascinating feature of the brain: its flexibility. The brain must adapt to the ever-changing demands of the environment and its own body. Moreover, sensory inputs from the environment and the internal state of the animals must be integrated to select and perform adequate behaviors in different situations. For example, flying to a perceived food source and subsequently feeding. Afterwards, the ingested food must be digested and processed, all of which is controlled by neuronal networks. It would therefore be beneficial if sensory input from the environment, such as an appetitive food odor in case the animal is hungry, would activate signaling cascades to prepare the animal’s digestive system even before it starts feeding.
For my bachelor’s thesis I investigated whether specific sensory inputs lead to anticipatory changes in modulatory brain neurons and, ultimately, behavioral adaptions to different external conditions. After finishing my thesis, I took the opportunity to stay in the lab as a student assistant to continue working on the project, while completing my Master of Science at the University of Würzburg.