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Internal compass guides fruit fly navigation

Activity in ring of nerve cells corresponds to flight direction, study finds

2:11pm, May 4, 2017
fruit fly

IN THE RING  A ring of nerve cells in a fruit fly’s brain helps it to fly right — and all the other directions, depending on where the insect is trying to go.

Scientists have shown why fruit flies don’t get lost. Their brains contain cells that act like a compass, marking the direction of flight.

It may seem like a small matter, but all animals — even Siri-dependent humans — have some kind of internal navigation system. It’s so vital to survival that it is probably linked to many brain functions, including thought, memory and mood.

“Everyone can recall a moment of panic when they took a wrong turn and lost their sense of direction,” says Sung Soo Kim of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Va. “This sense is central to our lives.” But it’s a complex system that is still not well understood. Human nerve cells involved in the process are spread throughout the brain. In fruit flies, the circuitry is much more straightforward.

Two years ago, Janelia researchers reported that the flies appear to have a group of about 50 cells

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