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Neuroscience & Mental Health

THE ANSWER TO UNDERSTANDING HUMAN BRAIN DISORDERS?

Investigate the similarities between insects and man.

Understanding brain disorders from insectsOur brains and those of insects are very similar constructed, although they look so different. Because of these similarities, we can learn a great deal about how human brain disorders come about by looking at insects' dysfunctional brains.

Researchers at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry have undertaken a study to compare the development and function of the central brain region in arthropods (insects, spiders and crustaceans) and vertebrates (creatures with a back bone). 

We found that the response of a fly or a mouse to internal needs, such as hunger or sleep, and external stimuli such as light/dark or temperature are controlled by similar neural mechanisms. 

Because flies, crabs, mice and humans all experience common impulses, such as hunger and the need to sleep, we hypothesised that humans and insects must have a similar control mechanism to regulate these behaviours. 

Our hypothesis was correct: despite the differences in size and appearance of species and their brains, we were amazed to find how many similarities there were. This has given us new insight on the evolution of the human brain and behaviour, and may help us to understand the disease mechanisms involved in mental health problems.

Dr Frank Hirth, Senior Lecturer and Principal Investigator at the institute, is undertaking research to address two questions: 

  • How is genetic information converted into neural circuits and behaviour? 
  • How are these processes affected in disorders of the brain? 

Using the fruit fly as a model system, Dr Hirth’s team is investigating, in particular, how neural stem cells and their lineages form neural circuit elements mediating action selection and adaptive behaviour. His lab currently focuses on inhibitory GABAergic and modulatory dopaminergic circuits, and they use genetic manipulations to identify mechanisms underlying the selection and maintenance of behavioural actions. 

Dr. Hirth's lab apply their insights into neural circuit formation and motor control to investigate pathogenic mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative movement disorders, including Parkinson's and Motor Neurone Disease, as well as Fronto-temporal Dementia. Specifically, we are investigating how mitochondrial dysfunction, deregulated TDP-43 and C9-related hexanucleotide repeat expansion cause age and cell type specific neurodegeneration.

By using the fruit fly, we can mimic abnormal processes and monitor their effect on neural circuits and behaviour, which will give us the opportunity to understand the underlying causes and nature of disease.

Donate today to support this vital work. You can help us to continue to unlock the brain's secrets, which in turn will allow us to develop more effective treatments for many brain disorders. Please help us make a real difference to people’s lives.

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Further reading

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