If you have children present, you might want to click out of this post. But if you want to understand motivation, you’ll want to know about the sexual behavior of fruit flies.
In the brain, motivational states are nature’s way of matching our behaviors to our needs and priorities. But motivation can go awry, and dysfunction of the brain’s motivation machinery may well underlie addiction and mood disorders, says Michael Crickmore, PhD, a researcher in the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center. “Basically, every behavior or mood disorder is a disorder of motivation,” he says.
It’s already known that brain cells that communicate via the chemical dopamine are important in motivation – and are also implicated in ADHD, depression, schizophrenia and addiction. But what exactly are these cells up to, and who are they talking to? That’s where fruit flies come in.
“We study motivation in a simple system that we can bash very hard,” says Crickmore.
Observing mating behavior in male fruit flies is an easy way to observe motivation. Moreover, the brain circuitry behind fly mating has already been characterized, thanks to the creature’s very small brain, which has only about 100,000 neurons (compare with our own 100 billion).
“If you really squint, you can see it,” says Crickmore.
Spying on flies
In their experiments, Crickmore and colleagues put males together with females, and watch what happens next. Like a security guard monitoring multiple cameras (see above video), they can spy on many trysts at once.
At first, they’ve found, males are highly motivated to mate, an activity that typically takes about 25 minutes. For the first 5 minutes, nothing can disengage them, even lethal stimuli like extremes of heat or cold. But then they become increasingly distractible.
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