Animals discriminate stimuli, learn their predictive value and use this knowledge to modify their behavior. In Drosophila, the mushroom body (MB) plays a key role in these processes. Sensory stimuli are sparsely represented by ∼2000 Kenyon cells, which converge onto 34 output neurons (MBONs) of 21 types. We studied the role of MBONs in several associative learning tasks and in sleep regulation, revealing the extent to which information flow is segregated into distinct channels and suggesting possible roles for the multi-layered MBON network. We also show that optogenetic activation of MBONs can, depending on cell type, induce repulsion or attraction in flies. The behavioral effects of MBON perturbation are combinatorial, suggesting that the MBON ensemble collectively represents valence. We propose that local, stimulus-specific dopaminergic modulation selectively alters the balance within the MBON network for those stimuli. Our results suggest that valence encoded by the MBON ensemble biases memory-based action selection.
An animal's survival depends on its ability to respond appropriately to its environment, approaching stimuli that signal rewards and avoiding any that warn of potential threats. In fruit flies, this behavior requires activity in a region of the brain called the mushroom body, which processes sensory information and uses that information to influence responses to stimuli.
Aso et al. recently mapped the mushroom body of the fruit fly in its entirety. This work showed, among other things, that the mushroom body contained 21 different types of output neurons. Building on this work, Aso et al. have started to work out how this circuitry enables flies to learn to associate a stimulus, such as an odor, with an outcome, such as the presence of food.
Two complementary techniques—the use of molecular genetics to block neuronal activity, and the use of light to activate neurons (a technique called optogenetics)—were employed to study the roles performed by the output neurons in the mushroom body. Results revealed that distinct groups of output cells must be activated for flies to avoid—as opposed to approach—odors. Moreover, the same output neurons are used to avoid both odors and colors that have been associated with punishment. Together, these results indicate that the output cells do not encode the identity of stimuli: rather, they signal whether a stimulus should be approached or avoided. The output cells also regulate the amount of sleep taken by the fly, which is consistent with the mushroom body having a broader role in regulating the fly's internal state.
The results of these experiments—combined with new knowledge about the detailed structure of the mushroom body—lay the foundations for new studies that explore associative learning at the level of individual circuits and their component cells. Given that the organization of the mushroom body has much in common with that of the mammalian brain, these studies should provide insights into the fundamental principles that underpin learning and memory in other species, including humans.