Bing Zhang of University of Oklahoma used fruit flies as a model to understand what happens in the human brain because they share thousands of the same genes with a human.
Zhang and his students use a 'reverse engineering' approach to understand how the brain works.
"If we know how cells behave in fruit flies, we may better understand how they work in humans.
"A key experimental step to achieving this goal is to manipulate brain cells and observe their effects on animal behaviour. This is usually done by targeting one or two cells at a time or a small group of cells," said Zhang.
In the past 20 years, Drosophila researchers have developed sophisticated tools for cell and gene manipulation. However, one current and widely used method, called the GAL4/UAS system, is limited in its applicability to target small subsets of cells.
The method developed by Zhang's group took advantage of two additional genetic tools that when used in combination with the GAL4/UAS system, greatly expanded its utility.
According to Zhang, "There is no limit to the types of studies that can be done using fruit flies."
For example, fly neurobiologists can learn a lot about the brain in stroke patients by studying similar cell behavior in fruit flies.
The findings appeared in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.