Neurons that make flies sleep

Sleep is known to be regulated by both intrinsic (what time is it?) and environmental factors (is it hot today?). How exactly these factors are integrated at the cellular level is a hot topic for investigation, given the prevalence of sleep disorders. Researchers in the Rosbash and Griffith labs are pursuing the question in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, to take advantage of the genetic tools in the model system and the excellent understanding of circadian rhythms in the fly.

Like other animals, the fruit fly displays a robust activity/sleep pattern, which consists of a morning (M) activity peak, a middle-day siesta, an evening (E) activity peak and nighttime sleep. M and E peaks are controlled by different subgroups of circadian neurons such as wake-promoting M and E clock cells.

In a paper just published in Nature, Brandeis postdoctoral fellow Fang Guo and coworkers identify a small group of circadian neurons, a subset of the glutamatergic DN1 (gDN1s) cells, which have a critical role in both types of regulation. The authors manipulated the gDN1s activity by using recently developed optogenetics tools, and found activity of those neurons is both necessary and sufficient to promote sleep.


The cartoon model illustrates how the circadian neuron negative feedback set the timing of activity and siesta of Drosophila. The arousal-promoting M cells (sLNv) release pigment-dispersing factor (PDF) peptide to promote M activity at dawn. PDF peptide can activate gDN1s, which release glutamate to inhibit arousal-promoting M and E (LNds) cells and cause a middle-day siesta. At evening, the gDN1s activity is reduced to trough levels and release E cell activity from inhibition.

DN1s enhance baseline sleep by acting as feedback inhibitors of previously identified wake-promoting M and E clock cells, making them the first known sleep-promoting neurons in this circadian circuit. It is already known that M cell can activate gDN1s at dawn. Thus the daily activity-sleep pattern of Drosophila is timed by the circadian neuron negative feedback circuitry (see Figure).  More interestingly, by using in vivo calcium reporters, the authors reveal that the activity of the gDN1s is also shown to be sexually dimorphic, explaining the well-known difference in daytime sleep between males and females. DN1s also have a key role in mediating the effects of temperature on daytime sleep. The circadian and environmental responsiveness of gDN1s positions them to be key players in shaping sleep to the needs of the individual animal.

Authors on the paper include postdocs Guo, Junwei Yu and Weifei Luo, staff member Kate Abruzzi, and Brandeis graduate Hyung Jae Jung ’15 (Biology/HSSP).

Guo F, Yu J, Jung HJ, Abruzzi KC, Luo W, Griffith LC, Rosbash M. Circadian neuron feedback controls the Drosophila sleep-activity profile. Nature. 2016.

Fruit flies alter their sleep to beat the heat

Do you have trouble sleeping at night in the summer when it is really hot?

Does a warm sunny day make you want to take a nap?

You are not alone — fruit flies also experience changes in their sleep patterns when ambient temperature is high. In a new paper in Current Biology, research scientist Katherine Parisky and her co-workers from the Griffith lab show that hot temperatures cause animals to sleep more during the day and less at night, and then investigate the mechanisms governing the behavior.

The increase in daytime sleep is caused by a complex interplay between light and the circadian clock. The balance between daytime gains and nighttime losses at high temperatures is also influenced by homeostatic processes that work to keep total daily sleep amounts constant. This study shows how the nervous system deals with changes caused by environmental conditions to maintain normal operations.

Parisky KM, Agosto Rivera JL, Donelson NC, Kotecha S, Griffith LC. Reorganization of Sleep by Temperature in Drosophila Requires Light, the Homeostat, and the Circadian Clock. Curr Biol. 2016.

Sleep and memory are connected by a pair of neurons in Drosophila

In a recent post on the Fly on the Wall blog, Neuroscience grad student Bethany Christmann talks about recently published research from Leslie Griffith’s lab:

 … [How are sleep and behavior] connected in the brain? Does sleep simply permit memory storage to take place, such that the part of the brain involved in memory just takes advantage of sleep whenever it can? Or are sleep and memory physically connected, and the same mechanism in the brain is involved in both? In a recent study published in eLife, researchers in the Griffith lab may have [uncovered the answer]. They found that a single pair of neurons, known as the DPM neurons, are actively involved in both sleep and memory storage in fruit flies.

Haynes PR, Christmann BL, Griffith LC. A single pair of neurons links sleep to memory consolidation in Drosophila melanogaster. eLife. 2015;4.

The “Fly on the Wall” Blog

fruit_fly_drawingBethany Christmann, a Neuroscience Ph.D. student in Leslie Griffith’s lab at Brandeis University has created a blog titled Fly on the Wall. The blog’s purpose is to introduce fly science to a broader audience of non-fly scientists. Check it out if you want to learn more about fly life, current research and how fruit fly research has already made huge contributions to understanding human biology and will continue to do so in the future.

Learn more about research in the Griffith Lab.


Another way that flies sense temperature

If you remember your (bio-)physical chemistry, you’ll remember that most proteins are temperature sensitive. But which ones acts as the sensors that drive behavior in higher organisms? The Garrity Lab at Brandeis has been working on thermosensation in Drosophila, and previous work has implicated the channel protein TRPA1 as a key mediator of temperature preference and thermotaxis,  In a new paper in Nature, members of the Garrity lab working in collaboration with the Griffith and Theobald have have identified another protein, GR28B(D), a member of the family of gustatory receptor proteins, as another behaviorally important temperature sensor, involved in rapid avoidance of high temperatures. Authors on the paper include postdocs Lina Ni (lead author) and Peter Bronk, grad students April Lowell (Mol. Cell Biology) and Vincent Panzano (PhD ’13, Neuroscience), undergraduate Juliette Flam ’12, and technician Elaine Chang ’08.

  • Ni L, Bronk P, Chang EC, Lowell AM, Flam JO, Panzano VC, Theobald DL, Griffith LC, Garrity PA. A gustatory receptor paralogue controls rapid warmth avoidance in Drosophila. Nature. 2013.
  • story at BrandeisNOW


To Get The Girl, You Have To Listen… No, Smell!

KC and the Sunshine band were prophetic when they wrote the song Get Down Tonight in ways that they never could have imagined. In the tiny social world of fruit fly courtship, the directive ‘do a little dance, make a little love’ is right on target. And just like in a dance club, what is said and when/how it is said are important to the success of fly hookups.

In ways not that dissimilar to humans, Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies meet at a singles bar commonly known as a fallen piece of overripe fruit. As the prospects congregate, there is a lot of information that is exchanged. Males use their wings to sing at short distances to the ladies milling about, giving persistent shouts of: (1) “Hey!” and (2) “How you doin’?”. When a female slows her pace to one of these calls from the dance floor, the male can then move in and cut out the ‘Hey’ portion of the call, and just use the more intimate “How you doin’?” signal. If she is still receptive, the male will dance a little closer, touching her butt and showing off his best moves until an eventual one-night-stand is awarded for his efforts. This interesting human/fruit fly parallel shows just how universal mating strategies are, even across 500 million years of evolution.

Also in similar fashion, when a miscommunication occurs, males have a much more difficult time obtaining a mate. The recent paper by Trott et al. (PLoS ONE, 2012) shows that the distance and timing of the two signals is critical to male mating success. Female fruit flies give off a chemical signal (like perfume!) to courting males, telling them that they’re interested, and the distance that the female lingers from the male is reinforcement to the male’s advances. Males who are deficient in their ability to smell due to an olfactory mutation also have a difficult time switching to a dominant “How you doin’?” signal. Without a functioning olfactory feedback mechanism, the male is unable to make the proper adjustments to his signal. For the female, it’s kind of like trying to have a one-on-one conversation with a male that is still trying to pick up every other female in the room. Even though the male is handsome/strong/free of parasites, interest from the female quickly wanes when he keeps giving the wrong signal. All the parts of the song are there; he just can’t read the cues.

So next time you’re out busting a move on the dance floor, think of the noble fruit fly passionately conducting it’s own miniature fandango. What is said is just as important as the moves that are made. And being able to read feedback is crucial to success. In a strange homage to Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s the male fruit fly that uses its ‘nose’ to speak sweet nothings that is best able to woo the female.

Trott AR, Donelson NC, Griffith LC, Ejima A (2012) Song Choice Is Modulated by Female Movement in Drosophila Males. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46025. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046025

Alexander Trott ’10 and postdocs Nathan Donelson and Aki Ejima worked on Drosophila courtship together with Prof. Leslie Griffith at Brandeis. Aki is now an Assistant Professor at Kyoto University. Alex is currently a graduate student at Harvard Medical School.

Video courtesy of Dr. Aki Ejima

To sleep, perchance to learn?

Sleep deprivation is ubiquitous in today’s society, and we have all felt the effects of sleep loss on our ability to function optimally, physically and especially mentally. In particular, it has become clear that the brain requires sleep to efficiently establish many forms of long-term memory. However, it is still unknown what sleep deprivation actually does to the brain to impair its function. In a recently published review in the journal Cellular Signalling, authors Christopher G. Vecsey from Brandeis University and Robbert Havekes and Ted Abel from the University of Pennsylvania have tried to capture the current state of our knowledge about the molecular and cellular effects of sleep deprivation that could explain why sleep loss is so detrimental for memory formation. The review focuses primarily on memories for events and places, which are thought to be formed and stored in the area of the brain called the hippocampus.

A key approach to learn about the nitty-gritty effects of sleep deprivation has been research in rodents. Therefore, the authors begin by summarizing how sleep deprivation studies are carried out in rodents, and how sleep deprivation affects memory and several signaling pathways in the brain. Notably, they review the effects of sleep loss on neurotransmitter systems such as acetylcholine, glutamate, and GABA, all of which could potentially modulate learning and memory. The authors also discuss some of the newest and most exciting studies on the topic of sleep loss, including a handful of experiments in which researchers have been able to reverse the effects of sleep deprivation through pharmacological treatments. For example, the authors describe one of their own studies in which sleep deprivation in mice caused memory deficits and reduced signaling through the cAMP pathway, which is known to be crucial for long-term memory. This molecular effect was likely caused by accelerated breakdown of cAMP by phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4). When mice were treated with a PDE4 inhibitor during the period of sleep deprivation, memory formation remained unaffected. Rescue of memory defects were also obtained in separate studies in which rodents were treated either with nicotine, caffeine, or CPT, an antagonist of the adenosine A1 receptor. Two related studies also found that the effects of sleep deprivation on memory could be ameliorated by prevention of transmitter release from cells in the brain called glia. This was the first indication that brain cells other than neurons are impacted by sleep deprivation and that they contribute to the effects of sleep loss on the ability to remember new information.

As the authors mention, goals for studies in the immediate future will be to identify additional ways that sleep deprivation affects the brain, determine why sleep deprivation targets these molecules, and discover how these targets interact with each other to impair the normal function of the brain. Finally, hopefully our growing knowledge can be used to develop treatments for the cognitive deficits produced by sleep loss in people, especially those who have impaired sleep due to a medical condition, such as insomnia, chronic pain, sleep apnea, or one of the many neurodegenerative or psychiatric disorders associated with disturbed sleep patterns.

Christopher G. Vecsey is a postdoctoral fellow in the Griffith Lab at Brandeis, where he continues to work on interactions between sleep and learning. Chris is supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The ancient insect nose

In a recent short article in The Journal of Experimental Biology titled JUMPING BRISTLETAILS – A GLIMPSE INTO THE ANCIENT INSECT NOSE“, postdoc Katherine Parisky discusses the evolution of the olfactory system in insects.

In order for aquatic organisms to have made the transition from living in water to surviving on land, mutations in several physiological processes needed to occur. For one sensory system, that of smell, olfactory brain structures that detect odors based on sensing air-borne, volatile and hydrophobic molecules evolved from structures that had the ability to detect aqueous hydrophilic solutions […]


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