In nature, animals form memories associating reward or punishment with stimuli from different sensory modalities, such as smells and colors. It is unclear, however, how distinct sensory memories are processed in the brain. We established appetitive and aversive visual learning assays for Drosophila that are comparable to the widely used olfactory learning assays. These assays share critical features, such as reinforcing stimuli (sugar reward and electric shock punishment), and allow direct comparison of the cellular requirements for visual and olfactory memories. We found that the same subsets of dopamine neurons drive formation of both sensory memories. Furthermore, distinct yet partially overlapping subsets of mushroom body intrinsic neurons are required for visual and olfactory memories. Thus, our results suggest that distinct sensory memories are processed in a common brain center. Such centralization of related brain functions is an economical design that avoids the repetition of similar circuit motifs.
Animals tend to associate good and bad things with certain visual scenes, smells and other kinds of sensory information. If we get food poisoning after eating a new food, for example, we tend to associate the taste and smell of the new food with feelings of illness. This is an example of a negative ‘associative memory’, and it can persist for months, even when we know that our sickness was not caused by the new food itself but by some foreign body that should not have been in the food. The same is true for positive associative memories.
It is known that many associative memories contain information from more than one of the senses. Our memory of a favorite food, for instance, includes its scent, color and texture, as well as its taste. However, little is known about the ways in which information from the different senses is processed in the brain. Does each sense have its own dedicated memory circuit, or do multiple senses converge to the same memory circuit?
A number of studies have used olfactory (smell) and visual stimuli to study the basic neuroscience that underpins associative memories in fruit flies. The olfactory experiments traditionally use sugar and electric shocks to induce positive and negative associations with various scents. However, the visual experiments use other methods to induce associations with colors. This means that it is difficult to combine and compare the results of olfactory and visual experiments.
Now, Vogt, Schnaitmann et al. have developed a transparent grid that can be used to administer electric shocks in visual experiments. This allows direct comparisons to be made between the neuronal processing of visual associative memories and the neural processing of olfactory associative memories.
Vogt, Schnaitmann et al. showed that both visual and olfactory stimuli are modulated in the same subset of dopamine neurons for positive associative memories. Similarly, another subset of dopamine neurons was found to drive negative memories of both the visual and olfactory stimuli. The work of Vogt, Schnaitmann et al. shows that associative memories are processed by a centralized circuit that receives both visual and olfactory inputs, thus reducing the number of memory circuits needed for such memories.